Tag Archives: Alias Adam

Alias Adam (Chapters 11 – 13)

Chapter 11 – Infection

In search of a form for its embodiment, the monster waited. It could not see, hear, smell, taste, or feel, but it did not stalk aimlessly. Mental disturbances could be monitored. Aberrations were its nutrition. Sensing appropriate stirrings of thought, it circled closer, adhered, and injected itself into the ephemeral substratum.

Curiosity, now infected, began growing into morbid fascination and achieved a degree of permanence. Neurons fired. Lurid fantasies were engendered. Sensations began trickling, then flooding, inward. Information was being gathered. Plans could be made. Soon the abomination would be able to speak and act. Muscle fibers twitched at its command.

Chapter 12 – Vacation

Angel wondered if she had awakened in paradise. It had been almost a week, and this impression had only grown stronger each morning. Nestled between flannel sheets, she absorbed the comforting atmosphere of the room which, temporarily, was hers. Could people really live like this? She wondered if this was what being someone’s daughter was supposed to feel like.

She and Tommy had not only respected the routine of their hosts. They had settled into it. Breakfast was often an individual matter, its time of occurrence determined by when one woke up. The morning meal ranged from gregarious to solitary, depending on the combination of personnel. Generally, the men were working on one project or another outdoors when she made it to the table. Janice had given her strict instructions to prioritize feeding and resting.

Everyone always took lunch together prior to a voluntary cessation of physical labor. Afternoons were devoted to reading and contemplation, and Tommy and Angel spent these hours together in the library. Evening dinners were a high point of each day. They were reserved for interesting conversations, often about what had been read recently. Winged wisdom, lofty and invisible, seemed to hover above the dining room table on these occasions. Just last night, there had been a lively discussion of Plato’s Republic and the training of a guardian class. This had raised questions as to the plausibility of teachers training students to be more knowledgeable than themselves, the restriction of individual access to information for the alleged good of the state, and why anyone would consider themselves qualified to make such decisions.

On this particular morning, Angel dressed quickly and went downstairs. Janice happened to be puttering about in the kitchen. She always happened to be puttering about in the kitchen until her guest was seated in the breakfast nook, and she never disappeared into the recesses of the house before preparing her something to eat.

“Good morning, Angel. What would you like this morning?”

Angel rubbed her jaw thoughtfully. There was no heat, and she knew what that meant. She had known internally before engaging in this action.

“I think something solid,” she answered. “Do you have any needle nose pliers?”

“Jonathan keeps a toolbox in the broom closet by the back door,” Janice answered in mild surprise. “It’s normally used for household tasks, so I doubt he would have taken it out today.”

With subtle determination, the young woman found what she was looking for and headed for the downstairs bathroom. Guided by her reflection in the mirror, she carefully untwisted the wires in her mouth. When she was about halfway through, there was a sound from the kitchen. The men were coming in for something to drink. Tommy went back toward the bathroom while Andrew washed his hands in the kitchen sink. He intended to clean up as well, but he stopped in the open doorway.

“What are you doing?”

“Getting ready to brush my teeth – finally.”

“The doctor said six weeks – minimum. It’s only been about one.”

“I know,” she stated as she continued untwisting the wires. “The breaks are healed.”

“Are you sure?”

She dropped her shoulders and looked at him as if to say, “Really?”

A sizzling sound came from the kitchen, then the enticing smell of thick slices of ham being cooked in a skillet. Janice called out.

“Would you like your eggs sunny side up? I can put a thin crust on their undersides by frying them in the meat drippings.”

“Tommy, please go and tell her that would be wonderful.”

He obeyed while she finished working on her mouth. With the wires and rubber bands removed, she gingerly worked her jaw up and down. It didn’t hurt, but the muscles which moved it had grown stiff. The restored movement was glorious. Minutes later, Janice was looking on in mild wonder as Angel consumed a meal that would have done justice to a two-hundred-pound man.

“Mrs. Andrews,” Angel began.

She still lacked the confidence of familiarity with her new surroundings.

“Janice.”

“Janice,” she repeated obediently. “I’m ready to help with the housework.”

Chapter 13 – Spread

The leaves were turning in Missouri when the first of the bodies was found in a state farther to the west. It bore no identification. Forensic examination uncovered evidence of sexual assault, and the skull had been crushed by several blows with a blunt object, possibly a sledgehammer. These details were characteristic of a crime of passion, but the act had, in fact, arisen from forethought and planning.

Soon, it was necessary for Tommy and Jonathan to focus their outdoor efforts on raking leaves. On days when the wind was not blowing, the city government allowed the burning of yard waste. For a couple of days toward the end of this ongoing task, Janice and Angel assisted the men. Their evening discussions lingered over Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Tommy’s frustration with the author’s invented terminology. Though Angel and Jonathan tried to help, he found the work nearly impenetrable. The group’s mutual interest centered on the implausibility of an infinite regression of causes, and they considered whether this indicated the existence of some kind of ultimate source as proposed by the ancient philosopher. Eventually, they moved on to other matters.

One evening, Jonathan addressed a nonliterary question to Tommy.

“I understand why Angel hasn’t left the house, Thomas, but why haven’t you gone beyond the limits of our yard?”

“Maybe it’s because I don’t feel self-conscious here.”

“That’s understandable, I suppose, but you might be making too much out of that. I’ll bet your appearance won’t draw much attention at all in this town.”

“That’s a bet you’ll lose.”

“I doubt it. This town is used to seeing racial minorities, just not that often. There are also a number of group homes run by the state mental hospital. The residents – or clients, as the staff call them – can be seen walking around fairly commonly. Some are in need of supervision. Others aren’t. People who live here are accustomed to seeing them, at any rate. Throw in some substance abusers, the disabled and mentally challenged – I think you get my drift. Our population is visually inoculated.”

Tommy remembered some loose change – the only money he had left to his name – stored in a zippered pouch in his suitcase. He had forgotten about it when he and Angel had first stood in that aisle at Walmart.

“So you’ll bet?”

“I said so, didn’t I? The risk I’m taking on is only minor. There’s always a chance you’ll come across a heckler, but I doubt you’ll have any trouble.”

“How much?”

Jonathan’s face took on a competitive look.

“Twenty-five cents.”

“Okay, I’ll play. Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow.”

They shook hands.

The following morning, Tommy took a long walk. He was out for over three hours. There were few people to encounter on the residential streets. One woman looked suspiciously at him as she worked in her yard, but he gathered from her expression that she might have done so with any stranger. Her wary reaction was insufficient to win him the bet. Besides, she had stared at him instead of looking away.

In a different neighborhood where the houses were a little shabbier, a couple of girls smoking on a porch called out and jokingly propositioned him. Though they looked to be younger than he was, hard living was already obscuring their youth. They and their pattern of speech were of a rougher cut. This in itself did not constitute prejudice, and they sounded as if they would have followed through had he accepted. There was nothing new or appealing in that, but their forwardness, while repulsive, was also uninhibited. Their relaxed, careless attitude indicated that they treated other men in the same way. He kept walking.

“Too bad, dude,” one of them called aggressively after him. “You’re pretty hot.”

Their laughter, intended more for each other and lacking any hint of ridicule, died away behind him. He came to Austin and walked eastward along this busier street. He was beginning to feel invisible. People in cars and trucks were not actively looking away from him. They simply were not looking at him.

Coming to a stoplight, he turned left and walked north on Washington Street. There were a number of Victorian houses here, some in better repair than others, and Halloween decorations were out on homes all along the street. Looking down Central Avenue at its intersection with Washington, he saw an old man driving on a small riding mower. Not long after that, a teenager on the opposite sidewalk was wearing headphones and singing loudly off key while making exaggerated, jerking motions with his arms and legs. He was oblivious of Tommy and almost everything else around him.

A few more blocks beyond this, the street pitched down a slight grade. An old woman, visibly overweight, passed by slowly on an electric scooter with four wheels and a metal basket on the back. The basket contained two grocery bags and a purse. She was evidently heading north after doing some shopping. It was possible that she had come all the way from Walmart, but Tommy was unaware of the Woods supermarket near the west end of town.

He turned left on Atlantic, walked a couple of blocks over a slight hill, and crossed Ash. There was a fairly large park with a swimming pool on his right. Beyond the pool, a small lake was bordered by a playground, a parking lot, and a walking trail. Signage identified this body of water as Walton Lake, and a small farm covered a rise beyond the north shore. Cattle could be seen grazing beyond a wire fence. Some group home residents were on a supervised walk through the park, and one of these waved to him. On another street, an old man on a porch waved languidly to him as well. Waving in this community seemed to consist of slightly raising one’s hand.

On reaching home – a funny sounding word, home – Tommy went back to his room, and then joined the others for lunch. Jonathan watched him with interest.

“Well?”

The huge man shifted in his seat, reached into his pocket, and flipped a quarter across the table.

“I’ll let you in on a secret,” the physicist offered, pocketing the quarter. “People don’t pay much attention to me, either. I’ve aged out.”

“It’s not the same as before,” Tommy mused. “I think I like this better. I’d rather be overlooked than conspicuously ignored, but some people even greeted me – in a way, I guess.”

Angel changed the subject.

“I started reading The Metamorphoses by Ovid,” she stated. “A lot of those stories were about the gods raping women, so I stopped. That’s not what I need right now.”

After a couple of bites, Janice offered an opinion of her own.

“Then you probably wouldn’t enjoy The City of God yet, either. You can’t get through Book I without reading Augustine’s discussion of women being violated by the Visigoths when they sacked Rome.”

Angel was encouraged by the fact that nobody had reacted with shock or discomfort to her comment. She was beginning to trust her surroundings.

“We actually read an excerpt of that in one of my philosophy classes in college,” she answered. “A number of us didn’t care for his argument.”

“That doesn’t surprise me. What he meant as consolation for sufferers doesn’t placate the modern mind, but I did find some statements I considered helpful.”

“Such as?”

“Oh, one comes to mind. He wrote that crimes against the body don’t destroy the virtue of the soul. I approve of his saying that the victims hadn’t done anything wrong. That’s remarkably sensitive for when it was written.”

“It still is,” Jonathan concluded, “when you read about what still happens in some places.”

Angel’s pupils constricted, and she frowned at the tablecloth.

“Honor killings,” she muttered, “or girls being banished from their families. Some people blame victims right here at home.”

The odd, younger couple grew daily in their confidence toward the odd, older couple. Conversation, as well as prolonged silence, grew easier. The hospitable household was a secure environment, a place of belonging and of being valued. The chimera and his biologically toxic friend had each been raised by adults unworthy of the calling, but now they were in the presence of people who genuinely cared for them. Though this was gradually becoming obvious, they had no base of experience from which to interpret the feeling. They only knew that they liked it.

As their security with their surroundings became better established, they began to take extended strolls together, especially at night. They ranged widely, exploring the streets in different parts of town and making comparisons between neighborhoods. The small town atmosphere was novel for both of them, and they found these expeditions mildly enjoyable. This was similar to what they had done on the night when first they had told each other their stories, but their topics of conversation were usually less wrenching than on that occasion – usually but not always.

“Tommy?” Angel asked on their way home one evening.

“What is it?”

“You know how I never show permanent effects from being attacked?”

“Sure. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

She walked several paces without further comment.

“So why did you bring that up?”

“Sometimes I feel like Dorian Gray.”

“Haven’t read that one,” he admitted. “There must be a lot of books you read that I didn’t. You’ve been at it longer than I have.”

“But you’ve heard of it.”

“Refresh my memory.”

“He’s a character written by Oscar Wilde. He lives this awful life, but he remains youthful despite his dissipation. It’s his portrait that shows the damage, the real condition of his soul.”

“You don’t dissipate yourself, Angel.”

“No, but I was wondering if the damage done to me could be accumulating somewhere else.”

“Like where?”

“Oh, I don’t know – like my subconscious or my emotions. I already told you that I try not to get attached, but it’s more than that. I rarely have strong feelings at all. Maybe I’m just weird. It bothers me sometimes. That’s all.”

“Maybe you feel more than you realize.”

“Maybe,” she agreed absently.

The trees of southern Missouri grew bare while the spree of rape and murder continued. It stalked the dry wastes of central Utah and progressed slowly eastward along I-70. Each body bore the same signs as the first. All were left hidden near county roadsides far enough from the interstate that no pattern was immediately discernible. It would take authorities in several jurisdictions quite some time to catch up and link the incidents. Victims remained unidentified at first because their remains were always deposited some distance away from where they had been abducted. This resulted in a slow filter of information which obscured the connection between missing person reports and the belated discoveries of the bodies.

Much has been said and written about the working of the criminal mind. The ability to explain offers a false panacea, an illusion of control. To explain is to insulate, to wrap oneself in a security blanket of informed familiarity. Factors such as economic and educational deprivation, genetics, physiology, and relational dysfunction are seen as problems which will inevitably yield to analysis and solution. In the case of these serial killings, however, the chain of cause and effect went deeper than any explanations which biology, psychology, or sociology could provide. The truth was inadmissible, too terrible to consider. Hideous, blunt, and stripped of intellectual adornment, it was so audacious as to remain hidden. The monster was finding its prey, and its hunger was insatiable.

 

 

Alias Adam (Chapter 10)

Chapter 10 – Safe Haven

Angel blinked and stared out of the window. A green sign drew close enough to read. “Bates County Drainage Ditch” greeted her in white letters and whisked by as she tried to gage how far south they had travelled down I-49. If memory served her correctly – and it usually did – they were a good hour or more out of Kansas City. Her short nap had served its purpose. Awake and alert, she sat up and glanced at her friend. He was so wide in the shoulders that she couldn’t avoid brushing against him, and she found that she liked travelling this way. Tommy’s eyes were darting about nervously as he surveyed the passing landscape.

“Have you ever been out of the city?”

“Only in my imagination.”

“Get used to it. Most of Missouri looks like this.”

“I guess it has to. I feel more exposed.”
She took a visual turn around the interior of the bus, and patted him reassuringly on the shoulder. He kept his eyes fixed on the fields, noting silently that the houses and out buildings were few and widely scattered.

“Relax. Nobody’s looking.”

He shrugged as the sarcastic rejoinder escaped his lips.

“They never are.”

Before long, another sign – this one reading “Vernon County” – passed by the window. The sky had a gray cast to it, and the suffused glow of the sun was sinking slowly. Trees fringed extensive plots of corn, milo, and beans.

“What have I gotten myself into?”

“Nothing you didn’t ask for,” she reminded.

Shortly thereafter, the bus decelerated. The driver put on his right blinker and turned onto the ramp for Exit 101. It emptied onto what looked like a main thoroughfare, and the bus continued in a westerly direction. About a tenth of a mile beyond the off ramp, they came to a stop at a Pilot Travel Center. The passengers stood and disembarked, some to stretch their legs before the resumption of their journeys, others to alight for good. Tommy and Angel followed once everyone else had left the aisle. They stepped onto the asphalt, picked up their bags as the driver unloaded them from the exterior compartment on the side of the bus, and walked toward the one-story building.

“So this is it,” Tommy announced while looking around uncomfortably.

“Don’t complain,” his companion chided. “This is as far as my money would take both of us. We need to find a grocery. I’m out of baby food.”

The gas pumps stood behind them as they opened the double glass doors and went inside.

The place was like any other travel plaza in appearance. Large, stone tiles of a beige color covered the floor and ran between and around numerous shelves of merchandise. Not that the two cultural isolates could have recognized the song, but country music was playing from some speakers hidden in the ceiling. A counter with a register was near the wall opposite the door. Behind this barrier stood an intelligent-looking man with eyeglasses and short, gray hair.

“What’s the name of this town?” Tommy asked as they approached the man.

“The sign at the exit said Nevada,” Angel cut in.

“Around here, it’s pronounced Ne-VAY-duh,” the attendant answered pleasantly, politely ignoring the odd appearance of the couple.

“Do you know where we can find a grocery?” she inquired.

He pointed to another door to his right. It faced southward toward the diesel pumps.

“There’s a Walmart Supercenter right over there. You can see the sign from our parking lot.”

They nodded their thanks and proceeded in the direction he had indicated. Once outside, they walked past the pumps, crossed the lot, and came to a row of parked semis at the edge. Beyond this lay a small field – beyond that, the Walmart parking lot. The store was within easy walking distance. Minutes later, they were standing at the mouth of an aisle in the grocery portion of the expansive interior. They searched the aisle until they found the baby food.

“What, exactly, are you looking for, Angel?”

“Meat, vegetables, fruit… anything with enough protein and nutrients. I can’t heal if I don’t eat.”

He sadly noted the small jars she selected.

“You’ll need more than that.”

“It’s all I can pay for. What were we thinking? We don’t even know where we’re spending the night. Maybe I can find a women’s shelter – if there is one.”

“And I’m fine sleeping outdoors. Where there’s a grocery store, there’s a dumpster, and that’ll take care of my supper.”

“Oh, you can do better than that.”

The unfamiliar voice belonged to a respectable man in his sixties. He was of average height, clean-shaven, and dressed in khaki slacks, flannel shirt, and windbreaker. His eyes were clear and hazel, his hair prematurely white. He had a somewhat square, inquisitive face, and he was walking over to them.

“Pardon my interruption,” he continued. “I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. I know I speak for my wife as well when I say we’d be happy if you would join us for dinner. We can also offer you a place to sleep, if you’ll let us. There’s plenty of room in our house.”

“You don’t even know us,” Tommy mumbled in confusion.

“From what I heard, you need help. I think the two of you look trustworthy enough. Are you?”

Being honest, they indicated that they were.

“From the way you’re talking, young lady, I’d say your jaw’s been wired shut. Do you have a straw?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, we have some clean ones at our house, and I agree with your friend. You’re going to need more food than you’re carrying.”

He grabbed several more jars off of the shelf.

“I’d be honored if you’d let me make up the difference.”

Having never been the beneficiaries of such kindness, they were momentarily dumbfounded. The older gentleman motioned them to follow after him, and he led the way to the check out lines.

“Your bags will fit in my trunk,” he proclaimed buoyantly over his shoulder as he walked.

Touched by his offer to help them, and subdued by his unassuming confidence, they dutifully followed. Their bags were soon packed away in the trunk of a nondescript but economical sedan, and they drove away, Angel in the front passenger seat and Tommy – sprawled and hulking – in the back. The car made a right turn out of the spacious parking lot and then a left at the stoplight on the main thoroughfare, now clearly identified by a street sign as Austin Boulevard. They continued westward into town. When they passed the intersection at Centennial Avenue, the four-lane street arched into a bridge over some railroad tracks, and there was the small downtown area with its low skyline spread before them. They drove a while longer through this architectural study in brick, vinyl siding, and corrugated tin. The most prominent feature was the point of a limestone clock tower with a reddish roof. Their driver pointed it out.

“That’s the county courthouse,” he said in an effort to break the awkward silence. “During the Civil War, this was a Confederate town, and it was burned to the ground by Union soldiers.”

Tommy took the hint.

“What’s it like, now?”

“Very white, but we do have some African Americans and Hispanics, not to mention an even smaller number of Asian Americans. You could go an entire day without seeing members of any minority, though. It certainly is different from the University community where I used to teach.”

“I meant, are people still prejudiced?”

“I’d say mostly not, though I’ve encountered a few unenlightened souls in the short time we’ve lived here. I suppose that doesn’t make here fundamentally different than anywhere else.”

“What’s the population?”

“Around eighty-five hundred, give or take. There can’t be much more than twenty-thousand in the entire county.”

The car made a couple of turns down residential side streets, and they pulled into the driveway of a Victorian home. A large sweetgum tree stood in the front yard while an equally large maple peeped over the roof from the back.

“Please don’t judge our house by the exterior. We concentrated on fixing up the inside first. Getting the old place painted is next on our list.”

He unlocked the trunk and handed them their bags. Then the kind man walked up some short steps to the covered porch and held the front door open for them.

“I’m back,” he called out. “Our guests are with me.”

“Oh, good,” a sweet voice called out from the rear of the house. “Have them set their bags down by the staircase.”

Puzzled looks on their faces, Tommy and Angel complied with these instructions as they took stock of where they were. The interior featured wood-framed arches, and bookcases of the same grain were set into the walls. In the living room, there was a bare mantle over the fireplace, which was empty at this time of year. Residue from fires long extinguished coated the hearth. The oak floors were strewn with attractive throw rugs to soften the appearance of the room, and an antique clock ticked soothingly on the wall. The ceiling was of pressed copper. Their host noted that this had attracted their attention.

“That ceiling was made by the W. F. Norman Corporation. It’s a family business located in an old, brick building just off the town square. They still use the old methods of production. Follow me,” he offered. “She’s back in the kitchen.”

When they entered, a trim, lively woman with graying hair pulled back in a pony tail turned around from the sink where she was working. She was wearing a long-sleeved undershirt beneath a denim shift. Freshly washed carrots and green peppers were on the counter, some cut into strips, and a paring knife was in her hand. Standing in a space outlined by myriad cabinets whose doors had glass windows and copper handles, she laid this implement down and quickly wiped her hands on her apron. The delicious smell of cooking seemed to emanate from her inviting smile.

“Hello,” she greeted almost musically. “I was just preparing a fresh salad. It’s all from our garden. I love growing things. With prepared soil and a little rainfall, they do the rest. All their instructions are contained in the seeds.”

“I don’t know what happened to my manners,” her husband confessed, turning once more to his guests. “This is my wife, Janice, and I’m Jonathan Andrews. I never asked your names.”

“Tommy and Angel,” the chimera answered in a low voice.

“Well, we’re glad you’re both finally here,” Janice responded with sincerity.

Tommy stooped to whisper in Angel’s ear.

“These people are acting as if they know us.”

She turned her head toward him slightly and discretely placed an index finger on his lips.

Acting as if he had not seen this, Jonathan pulled the baby food jars out of the bag he was carrying and set them on the kitchen table.

“Janice, Angel’s jaw is wired shut, and she can only eat through a straw. Is there any way you could fancy these up a bit?”

Continuing the distraction, the older woman picked up one of the jars and thought aloud. “To begin with, this will taste better if I heat it up. I can add some milk and seasoning as well, or would you prefer the milk separately in a glass? Broken bones need calcium.”

“Whatever is easiest for you, ma’am.”

Thinking better of her current tack, Janice moved over to Angel and gently touched one of her yellowing bruises.

“What happened to you, dear?”

Having never been touched tenderly by an older adult, Angel felt herself stiffen and then relax. Her intuition somehow reassured her that she was in a safe place. It was a childlike, almost instinctive reflex. She looked sideways into her massive friend’s eyes, and Janice immediately stepped backward to give her guests some breathing space.

“These people aren’t like us,” he murmured.

Her whispering hiss was emphatic.

“Maybe that’s exactly what we need.”

“Forgive me if I made you uncomfortable,” Janice broke in.

Feeling uncharacteristically the opposite for reasons of which she was almost unaware, Angel chose to test the water. She opted to be politely but brutally frank.

“No – it’s okay. I was beaten and gang-raped by four men.”

Jonathan groaned softly.

“Then it hasn’t stopped.”

The couple’s general lack of surprise brought their guests up short. Astonished, Angel gazed intently into Jonathan’s face.

“What did you mean by that?”

He was momentarily unable to answer. She could see that his hands were trembling, and there were tears in his eyes. His wife spoke for him.

“My husband has seen what happened to you – several times.”

“How?”

“In a series of dreams,” he answered with a shaky voice. “It wasn’t by accident that I overheard your conversation in that aisle at Walmart. I was waiting in the checkout line, and I recognized both of you as soon as I saw you. I started to follow you after you walked by me.”

Now Tommy’s curiosity was aroused despite his skepticism.

“You said you recognized both of us. Did you just imply that you’ve had dreams about me, too?”

“Several – and they were almost as disturbing. I told Janice all about those recurring nightmares, and we both knew they were real. We’ve been waiting for the two of you for a very long time. In an odd way, I watched both of you grow up, and I can’t help thinking you’re the reason we moved here after we retired. I’d barely heard of Nevada, Missouri, when I felt drawn here.”

Angel frowned thoughtfully as Tommy stared at the floor.

“I’ve heard about individuals like you before, but I didn’t believe it. Do you mind if I try a kind of experiment?”

“Go right ahead. You could say I’m a man of science.”

“Can you describe the first man who attacked me?”

He did so in exact detail, albeit haltingly.

“Please don’t ask me to go any further,” he pleaded.

“You don’t have to. I’m convinced.”

Jonathan looked up at Tommy.

“And you?”

“I don’t see how any of this is possible,” the huge man answered, “but you obviously know things you should have no way of knowing. I won’t put you through any more tests.”

Angel put her hand on the sleeve of their host’s jacket to get his attention.

“You said you had a series of dreams. For how long?”

There was a contemplative pause before the answer to her question.

“Every week, often several times a week, for twenty-two years. Then, about three years ago, the screen went blank.”

Tommy was still having trouble processing where they were and the nature of the folks into whose good graces they had fallen.

“Who are you people?”

“Oh,” Jonathan chuckled, “you can think of me as a retired physicist who crawled down a wormhole and never came out.”

He glanced at his wife, and, for a brief moment, the stars of the firmament sparkled in their eyes.

“And I went in with him,” Janice added as she turned back to the sink and the rest of her uncut vegetables.

Intrigued as well as grateful, the young couple consented to stay the night. During dinner, Angel alternately sucked baby food through a straw and told her attentive benefactors essentially what she had recounted to Tommy some two months earlier. Most of her story they already knew, owing to Jonathan’s unwanted visions. She had to slow down after recounting the attack she had endured when in college as this was the point at which the revelations had stopped. For several minutes, they allowed her to explain the reasoning behind her sense of purpose without interruption.

“I’m sure you know that rape isn’t sex,” she stated at last. “In that respect, I just go numb – except for the injuries. The second time it happened, my body responded involuntarily despite the trauma, and my mother’s boyfriend at the time tried to use that against me when it was over. He said that I’d really wanted what he’d done to me, which only made me more determined that I hadn’t. Ever since, I’ve kept it from happening. This may sound weird, but I took over my nervous system so that I could control the rest of me.”

Trying to hide it as best he could, Jonathan had been dabbing at his eyes with a handkerchief throughout her discourse. He did not want to make her self-conscious.

“You mentioned physical damage,” he managed to say. “But you heal very quickly?”

“That’s right.”

“Have you ever talked to anyone else about this?” Janice asked.

“Besides you, only Tommy.”

“So that would exclude a professional counselor.”

“I guess normal women should do that – get counseling, I mean – but I’m not normal.”

She tried to change the subject.

“There’s no point in reporting anything to the police, because there’s never anybody to arrest. In the time it would take me to submit to a forensic exam and give them a statement, the perpetrator would be dead, anyway.”

The dodge failed.

“I’m amazed at how calm you are while telling us this. Are you aware that emotional detachment is one of the symptoms of sexual abuse?”

“Yeah, and addiction, fear, hyperawareness, cutting behavior, eating disorders, thoughts of suicide…”

Her voice trailed off momentarily.

“I don’t do any of that. I also read that forceful resistance reduces the probability of injury – but not always – and it results in better mental health. I’m definitely not afraid. After an attack, I clean up and read a good book to get my mind on something else – usually after I’ve verified the assailants are dead.”

“Yes,” Jonathan nodded thoughtfully. “You explained that part quite thoroughly, and I believe you when you say you’re principled. You must have read a great deal.”

Angel raised her eyebrows and looked into some distant, hidden place.

“It has to be done. I’m not a victim, and I’m not a survivor. I’m a biological weapon – a voluntary combatant. I need to travel light, so when I finish a book, I try to leave it in a public place where someone can find it. It’s good to think that I might be promoting literacy in addition to everything else.”

Janice thought of something new.

“You said that you resist…”

“Right – as hard as I can. I warn them. I command them to stop. They have ample opportunity to save themselves.”

The older woman made silent note that this narrative was in the present tense.

“Do you worry that someone who might stop would have already been exposed to your toxin?”

“No, not really. My skin doesn’t tingle immediately – only once I realize an assault is unpreventable. A couple of men actually did quit in time. The rest followed through.”

This answer sent a shiver down Janice’s spine, but she concealed it. The response had betrayed an important fact. The production of this toxin, whatever it was, came about as an act of the will whether the young woman at their table knew it or not.

“Angel,” Jonathan began tentatively, “have you ever considered stopping?”

“I can’t deny my purpose,” she intoned evenly. “Sparing other women is too important.”

“How many options have you considered?”

“Only the one I took. The alternative is unacceptable.”

“Which is?”

“Doing nothing when I have these capabilities. That would be heartless.”

“Well,” the former professor continued, “my formal training has taught me something different. As human beings, we have a tendency to consider only two options at a time. You can call it binary thinking, but the universe is more complex than that. By failure of imagination, we often fail to recognize the third, fourth, or fifth option.”

“Mister Andrews, I’m not sure what you’re getting at.”

Her expression was respectful and betrayed a hint of hope. For one so decisive, she was remarkably open just then. Janice seized the initiative.

“My husband means that there are many ways to do good, some more effective than others. You’ve shared some sacred information with us, Angel, and we’re honored by your trust. May I ask you one more question?”

“Sure.”

“Have you ever thought of taking a vacation?”

The unexpectedness of this inquiry had more impact than anything that had previously been said.

“Oh, Mrs. Andrews,” Angel began, “I can’t afford…”

“You don’t need to pay for anything. We’d love for you and Tommy to stay with us. There are plenty of spare bedrooms in this house. We’ve remodeled the attic into a guest room that would be perfect for you. It will give you privacy, and it’s a charming space. You can rest and recuperate for as long as you like. Rescue workers, soldiers, and police officers take time off. Why shouldn’t you?”

“I’m – we’re – not freeloaders. We’re both out of money.”

“An invited guest is not a freeloader. We have no children, and we would appreciate your company – and your assistance. We’re still fixing up our home, and Tommy could be a big help to my Jonathan. When you’re feeling better, you can work with me to prepare our garden for the next growing season, and I can always use an extra pair of hands in the kitchen.”

“I can do housework,” Angel offered.

“Except for the bathrooms,” Jonathan broke in. “Those are my responsibility. That’s one task I don’t want my wife to perform, and that goes for you, too.”

Janice brightened even more.

“So you’ll stay on for awhile?”

Angel nodded gratefully, and their hostess looked at Tommy.

“And you?”

He had remained silent throughout the entire exchange. He lifted his eyes away from the floor and looked at her softly.

“There really isn’t anywhere for me to go,” he confessed. “Thank you for your generosity.”

Jonathan Andrews shifted his weight nervously.

“While you’re here, Angel, could we declare a moratorium on the, uh…”

“Oh, absolutely,” she responded. “You’re peaceful people. I’ll respect your routine. As long as I’m here, I’m in for the whole slice.”

“Thomas,” Jonathan added, “there’s another guest room on this floor. That should give you some privacy, too. Janice and I sleep on the second floor. Oh, and I noticed you didn’t eat much. A man your size has to be hungry after consuming so little. Feel free to help yourself to whatever’s in the fridge. Both of you, there’s a small library on the second floor, and you can have the run of that during the day. Take any books you want to your rooms if you like.”

About an hour after Tommy and Angel had been shown to their respective quarters, husband and wife sat on the couch in the living room. He watched her as she crocheted.

“Well?” he asked softly so as not to be overheard.

Little did they know that Angel could have heard them had she been anywhere but in the attic.

“For all she’s been through, she’s remarkably intact,” Janice answered with equal caution. “But that’s on the surface. If what she says about regenerating is true, then perhaps the alpha receptors in her brain aren’t shot. Still, she’s suffering from PTSD, but she compartmentalizes so effectively that it isn’t as obvious. Her coping skills are exceptional, and she has strong but misguided ethics. The challenge is to help her find a healthier sense of purpose, but I’m stating the obvious.”

“About that – do you think we should tell her the rest?”

“Not yet. It’s too much too soon and still rather indefinite. I’m not sure even you understand it sufficiently. I know I don’t.”

“Okay. What about the young man?”

“That’s actually going to be tougher. He’s damaged, too, but I’m convinced Angel is the key. They both need to be ready before you tell them more.”

He grinned at her and shook his head.

“After all these years, you still amaze me.”

“You still have so much to learn,” she commented as she placed a hand on his cheek.

She went back to her crocheting.

 

Alias Adam (Chapter 9)

Chapter 9 – An Agreement

When they awoke, Angel’s bruises were yellowing. The swelling in her face had gone down noticeably, and she was starting to look more like herself. Tommy stared at her in fascination. Before his eyes was the evidence of yet another one of her claims. She was healing at an incredible rate.

“You look better,” he commented.

“This was the worst,” she mumbled. “It’s taking a little longer than usual.”

Rubbing her eyes tentatively, she sat up, cleared her head, and stood by the couch. He followed her example and rose to his feet, awaiting her next command.

“Thanks for helping me,” she offered almost sullenly.

“What are you going to do next?”

“I got paid last Friday, but my rent was due. Then I bought some groceries I can no longer eat. There wasn’t much money left over, and I haven’t had time to build up my reserves. I hadn’t been in town long before you met me. I’m getting low on funds, but I’m not going back to my job. The chauvinist who runs the place won’t let me serve drinks looking like this. I don’t want people gawking at me and asking questions, anyway.”

Tommy listened patiently. He could see where her narrative was leading.

“I’ll just follow my circuit to Joplin, check into a shelter for battered women, and look for a job once my face is presentable. My jaw is still healing, but it won’t be long before I can get back to my mission.”

He lowered his head, and his hands hung down by his sides. Though he had little reason other than a few exchanges to expect better, and though she had never misled him, his imagination had been stimulated simply by knowing her. The prospect of losing what he did not rightfully own provoked him to sadness and disappointment. She had grown distant again, and his protective instinct was aroused.

“The coat you draped over me could have my toxin on it,” she reasoned, “and I don’t know how long it takes for the stuff to break down. I’ll get it washed for you before you leave. I owe you that much. I need to clean the rags I used on the tub, anyway. There’s a laundromat a couple of blocks from here.”

“No need to rush,” he disagreed impulsively. “I need to take care of some things. I can come back for it later. Do you need me to run any errands?”

A cynical smile preceded her answer.

“I’ll be alright. Don’t try to insinuate your way into my life.”

Aggravated by what he considered the unnecessary harshness of this response, he saluted brusquely and opened the door to leave.

“Wait, Tommy. You haven’t had anything to eat. Help yourself to the food in my refrigerator. You might as well. I can’t eat it.”

“No thanks. I know where to get what I need.”

Once outdoors, he foraged according to old habits. With discriminating taste, he selected his breakfast from a dumpster after steering away from two others. His meal showed great promise of staying down, but he was still hungry. There were still a couple of reliable stops he could make before picking up his check. Nobody would be by to open up the bar before early afternoon, and the meal he had consumed would at least fuel his journey on foot.

He arrived to a reception markedly different than what he had anticipated. The few fellow employees who were present avoided him by pretending to be busier than they were. By itself, this did not bother him. Their speech, just shy of abusive on most occasions, was normally an irritant, their modicum of restraint motivated more by fear than respect. That was it. Today, they were inordinately skittish, afraid of provoking him. If he blew up, great damage could be visited on property and limb. Something bad was coming, something with which they did not wish to be associated.

Suspiciously, Tommy entered the shabby office in the back. His boss was sorting through some bills and receipts and did not look up from the desk where he sat. The exaggerated air of importance he exuded during this mundane task was annoying. It conveyed an inappropriate rationale for what he was about to do. It was his tell, and he had treated other employees like this in the past.

“We’re gonna have to let you go, Tommy.”

There was still no eye contact.

“You and who else, Rick?”

This pointed use of his employer’s nickname was calculated to strip away any possibility of pretense. The man was deflecting responsibility, and he should not be allowed to get away with it. He bristled at the challenge and finally looked up.

“What you want me to say, Two-Tone?”

“Just that it was your decision. I’ll respect you more if you own it.”

A bead of sweat appeared on the bar owner’s otherwise impassive face. In consideration of his immediate safety, he felt possessed by a need to choose his next words carefully. Thinking of nothing, he remained mute.

“Was it the quality of my work, boss?”

“What’d you expect, anyway? Business is down. You make the customers nervous.”

“Same old same old,” Tommy snorted. “You haven’t got it in you to come up with anything original, do you? Just give me my pay, and you won’t see me again.”

“That’s the thing. There isn’t any pay.”

The hulk was growing angry, and he loomed over the desk.

“You mean you’re going to stiff me for my last two weeks of work.”

The smaller man squirmed but held to his untenable position. Greed had won out over common sense.

“You can’t prove I ever hired you. No paperwork, no records or tax withholdings. Go peacefully, kid. You break any bones or bust up my place, the police won’t have any trouble finding someone with your description.”

Tommy leaned over and slapped a massive hand on each shoulder. He felt his adversary tremble as he slowly clamped down.

“Have you ever considered that you might be pushing me past a line where I don’t care what happens?”

The trembling turned to outright convulsion, and he relaxed his grip.

“You haven’t reached it yet,” he laughed derisively. “Keep your money. You must need it more than I do.”

Leaving the premises, he encountered not one caustic remark. The ambience of the seedy room was almost reverential. As there was nowhere he needed to be by any particular deadline, his peregrinations for the rest of that day were to be undirected. A couple of dumpsters bore the brunt of his disappointment, and the gleanings did little to satisfy his appetite.

When he returned to Angel’s apartment early that evening, he knocked with more than a little trepidation. He heard movement on the other side as she got up and unlocked the door. It opened on a face of contrition. She lowered her eyes.

“I knew it was you by the sound of your steps in the hall. Come on in. I’m sorry for what I said before you left. It was rude, and you deserved better.”

“Don’t worry about it. I just came by for my jacket.”

“It’s on the table. Are you sure you can’t sit down and talk for awhile?”

There was nothing he wanted more. Baffled by the change in her demeanor, he took a seat next to her on the couch. She resumed what she had been doing before he knocked. Needle and thread in hand, she was repairing the tear in her coat. She must have done this previously with the rip in her orange “hunting” shirt, and this was probably a recurring task given her avocation. Tommy was perplexed by the domesticity of this scene. Incongruous with what he had witnessed the previous night, it revealed another facet in her character that had remained hidden until now.

“Why the change?”

“When you left this morning, something left with you.”

“But I left something behind, too, and I don’t mean my jacket.”

“Hush. I’m not done yet. It took me a few hours to figure out what it was.”

“And?”

“You make me feel safe. Nobody else does.”

“Well, you make me feel accepted, but it’s more than that. Something I can’t explain surrounds us when we’re together.”

Pondering these concessions, they sat without speaking for a few minutes.

“I decided long ago that I can’t afford to need anyone,” she continued, “but I was vulnerable with you last night. This morning, I was ashamed of that. You were being helpful, and I pushed you away with my words to keep you from getting too close.”

He found that he was growing accustomed to the alteration in her diction.

“Angel, what do you want?”

“For right now, you can read to me if you’re willing. My book is on the table. You know the story.”

He got up and brought The Divine Comedy back to where she was sitting.

“Where do I start?”

“There’s a bookmark at the beginning of the correct Canto – Twenty-Seven, I think.”

“Hey, you’re making progress. You’re almost out.”

“I wish.”

With the confidence of a child, she leaned against him. For all she had suffered, there was an air of purity about this young woman. Her fingers worked the needle and thread as he read aloud to her from The Purgatorio. For the moment, he was content, but he could not trust this emotional state given his personal history. Wrestling with doubts of her own, Angel squirmed and shifted her weight when he had completed the canto.

“Where is this heading, Tommy?”

“Paradise. You told me you’ve read it before.”

“No, I mean this.”

“I don’t know,” he answered resolutely. “I wasn’t thinking of ‘this’ going anywhere in particular. I’m not even sure what ‘this’ is. All I know is I want to be around you. That’s as close as I’ve ever come to making plans.”

“Are you offering to be my assistant?” she asked sadly. “Could you watch from a distance?”

“No.”

“Could you walk away and come back later?”

“Not after what I saw last night.”

“Then what are our options?”

“I have to believe this isn’t the best that two intelligent people can come up with, Angel.”

“But what about my purpose? I can’t ignore my responsibility.”

As his stomach knotted up, an idea began germinating out of his frustration. There was nothing to lose, and all gambles were acceptable. He put forth his proposal.

“How about an agreement? You have to heal before doing any more hunting, right?”

She nodded cautiously.

“Right…”

“It’s a big universe. There could be options neither one of us has considered. Who knows? Maybe there really is a way into paradise. If we don’t find it by the time you’re better, you can tap out. Until then, I want to go where you go. I’ll do whatever I can to help you. After last night, I can’t stay in town, anyway.”

His throat was catching, and he took a hard swallow.

“I know I can’t force you into this, and I won’t try. I don’t want to become what you’re fighting.”

Her eyes were sympathetic almost to the point of pity.

“We can’t get physically involved.”

“That goes without saying.”

“And I can quit whenever I want?”

“Yes – no obligations you don’t want to make.”

“Then what happens to you if I opt out?”

“Nothing much different than what’s happened before – not that I wouldn’t be sad. I’m willing to risk that.”

“Why? I mean, why for someone as toxic as I am?”

Her meaning was more than physiological. He thought for a minute and smiled to himself.

“You mentioned your purpose, your calling. I didn’t have one – nothing that drove me beyond filling my stomach and occasionally sticking up for someone else. I do now, and it’s you.”

Her face betrayed no emotion, but she was touched by his confession. Stirred by opposing desires, she returned to her original question.

“But where is this heading, Tommy?”

He regarded her with tranquil resignation.

“Based on where you were planning to go next, I’d say south.”

The man unaccustomed to long term decisions had jumped over a proverbial cliff. In contradiction to the course of his past, he had made a decision to honor an open-ended commitment with no guarantee of reward. She, for her part, vacillated as her resolve slowly weakened. Against what she considered her better judgment, she was gravitating toward his proposal.

“There’s something else I need to say. Before you agree to anything, you should know you’re not the only one without money. I just lost my job.”

“Yeah? How come?”

“The usual. My boss must’ve gotten tired of looking at me. He wouldn’t even pay what he owed me – threatened to call the police if I gave him any trouble.”

She became worried.

“Did you?”

“No, but I let him think I would before I left. Angel, my rent’s due, and I haven’t been paid. I have no money and no job. After what that oral surgeon did, the police might be looking for me. I might as well leave before I get evicted – or arrested.”

“How much stuff do you have?”

“It fits in one suitcase. Once I go back to gather it, I could be packed in less than half an hour.”

She sighed and rested the back of her head on his expansive chest.

Look at you. You’re enormous. How am I going to feed you? Better read me that next Canto. Then you can lay waste to the refrigerator as long as you stay out of the baby food.”

“So you did a little shopping.”

“Yes I did,” she asserted in mock defiance. “Right after I went to the laundromat. Don’t worry. I wiped the inside of the washing machine I used with bleach. I always do.”

“Get any funny looks?”

“A few.”

Without further negotiation, they thus entered an environment of desperation and mysterious presence in which the impossible seemed likely. Hope and uncertainty wrestled fiercely as these entangled souls settled into they knew not what. The next few hours were to pass amicably. Reading and conversing together on the couch, the chimera and the Naga child harbored forbidden and unspoken dreams of normality.

 

Alias Adam (Chapter 8)

Chapter 8 – Too Late

The sound of the television bounced off of the walls in a steady, bleary whine. It was the siren call of boredom. Sprawled out on a chair in the lobby of the cheap hotel where he rented a room, Tommy rolled to his right to steal a glance at the clock. The hands of this analog relic indicated that eight-thirty had passed by without announcing itself.

Sunday evenings without something to read were the worst. It was his night off because the bar was closed, but so was the public library. In what had become a repetitious exercise without benefit, he chided himself for not thinking ahead. He was finished with the last couple of books he had checked out, and they were due to be returned the following day.

It was too early to go to bed. This was compounded by the fact that he was hungry, and hunger made it more difficult to sleep. The gnawing in his stomach was typical for the end of a pay period. For reasons unknown to any but his employer, he was paid every other Monday. Rent and the maintenance of his considerable bulk sometimes exhausted his resources before the two weeks were up, a bad situation indeed for one unaccustomed to exercising foresight. He was not above visiting the dumpsters of grocery stores and fast food establishments, and such foraging had accounted for a late lunch on this particular day.

Looking listlessly at his jacket on the floor next to his chair, he decided against taking another walk. That had been his main activity for the afternoon, and the thought of adding to the considerable mileage he had already covered was entirely unappealing. He had succumbed to the restlessness before, sometimes making it as far as downtown. When the mood was right, he liked roaming the nearly deserted streets when businesses and office buildings were closed, when rectangular obelisks of steel and glass contrasted with the limestone of older edifices in the night sky. The interior lights of these structures glowed through their windows. The dull radiance was an oddly comforting reminder of what was not his – relationships, careers, material stability. Each distant window concealed a story he could not read. No, he would not go walking tonight.

Nobody else in the sparsely populated lobby was stirring. They were generally unwilling to talk to him, anyway. A dull voice narrated the program that was running on the television. The attendant working this shift had a liking for nature programs which could all be given the summary of a grim tale of survival in one habitat or another. This one was a grim tale of survival on the African savannah.

Tommy had not seen or spoken to Angel in over two months, yet the strangeness and pleasure of their last conversation lingered in his memory. Though he did not know what to call it, he was in a mild state of mourning. He missed her. Often – when at work, while reading, or idling aimlessly – he conjured up the coloration of her eyes, the sound of her voice, the ways in which she moved. The dignity of her posture represented a goal to which he could aspire, and he wished, though not to the point of decisive action, to be a better version of himself.

Something on the screen caught his attention. Four spotted hyenas were hunting in a pack. From the high grass, they surveyed a herd of grazing antelope, looking for a suitable victim – one that would not require them to expend too much energy in pursuit. A fawn had strayed from the edge of the herd, and they carefully encircled and crept up on it. When they broke from their cover, it was taken by surprise and could not escape. The rest of the herd scattered, and the chase was brief.

He had viewed this type of programming before, but what stood out this time was the ferocity and quickness with which the pack dispatched its prey. Almost simultaneously grabbing different legs in mid flight, three of the hyenas lifted it while the fourth tore open its throat. The young impala, graceful and sleek, was literally in pieces before it hit the ground. By comparison, the predators that had killed it were oddly proportioned and ugly. A sentence from the recent past emerged in his consciousness. I might still be able to fix this. Alarmed, he started from his chair.

“Oh, no. Angel, you didn’t.”

 He grabbed his jacket and headed out of the building. An autumn chill was in the air, and he donned his outer garment. Of all the places she might be in the greater metropolitan area, he knew where to look first. The walk to the alley behind his place of employment wasn’t a long one, and he covered the distance at a good pace. When he arrived at the location, she was not there. This in itself did not perplex him, but he was indecisive as to where he should search next.

He felt an unseen string twitch and pull from deep within his chest. Intuitively, he followed it. There was no need to consult street signs, for the internal pressure guided him down sidewalks and around corners. It relaxed at the mouth of another alley. Here, the lifeless form of a man stared wide-eyed with open mouth at the partially clouded, starlit sky. Even in poor lighting, Tommy recognized the ghastly face. It was one of the four men he had knocked out to save Angel. His stomach began turning as he walked deeper into the recess of the alley. The other three perpetrators were strewn along the length of this passage. It was as if they had been trying to get away from something.

Farther on, there she was, the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, despitefully used and thrown away like refuse. She was unconscious. Her tights and shoes had been ripped off and tossed on the rough pavement nearby. Bruises and cuts covered the exposed areas of her skin, including her face, which was swollen almost beyond recognition. A dry trickle of blood extended from one nostril. Her jaw line looked asymmetrical.

A shudder went through Tommy’s huge frame. Angel’s description of her calling had sounded self-sacrificing and noble, but the grotesque scene in front of him was what it actually looked like. Respectfully, he averted his eyes while removing his jacket. This he draped over the exposed lower half of her body. Recalling what she had said about the toxicity of her skin, he avoided touching her forearms. She was wearing her customary orange tee shirt with the three-quarter length sleeves. For fear of causing her any more pain, he barely nudged the covered portion of her upper arm with his foot. This cautious procedure was repeated until her eyes blinked open.

She moaned softly and then grimaced as she tried to sit up.

“Please say you didn’t touch me.”

“I didn’t. I was careful.”

“Don’t touch my pants, either. Where are they?”

He pointed solemnly.

“Over there. I’ll step away while you get dressed.”

“Thanks. You can’t wear your coat until it’s washed. Are you cold?”

After what had happened to her, he was amazed that she could think of whether or not he was comfortable. She seemed annoyed by his silence.

“I asked you if you’re cold.”

“Not very, but that’s not important.”

He noticed her speech was slurring.

“Tommy, I don’t think my jaw’s working right.”

He’d been watching the side of her face in the dim lighting as she said this.

“I think it’s broken, Angel.”

She sighed audibly.

“This was bad. They were cruel, but I got every last one of them before I passed out.”

He took another look down the alley.

“Yes, you did. They’re all dead. But Angel – on a Sunday?”

“Yeah,” she muttered. “I was scouting around and I happened to find them.”

“Well, you need to get to an emergency room as soon as possible before the swelling gets any worse. That jaw needs to be set right away, or you could be in surgery for hours. I heard that was what happened to a guy who got jumped outside the bar where I work.”

He turned his back and walked off an appropriate distance while she dressed.

“Done yet?”

“Yeah. Don’t help me up.”

Walking unsteadily, she joined him. His jacket was tied around her waist to cover the rips in her tights. They found her overcoat, its right sleeve nearly torn off, before they reached the first corpse. This she draped over her shoulders as she proceeded to where one of the other bodies was clutching her handbag. She retrieved it, placed the strap over her right shoulder, and resolutely staggered on, leaving Tommy to marvel at her resilience. Obviously in pain, she made a quiet announcement.

“I have to bathe first. I still have the filth of dead men inside of me.”

“Were you listening to what I said about getting your jaw set?”

She shot him a defiant glance and waved her hands by her ears as if to bat away his voice.

“I’m dangerous until the toxin’s rinsed off my skin. I don’t want to kill a doctor accidentally.”

They walked for a considerable distance. Finally, they arrived in a part of the city that was only slightly nicer than where he had found her. She went up the front steps of an old apartment building, removed a key on a chain from around her neck, and twisted it in the lock. Tommy anticipated her next request and pushed open the door so that she wouldn’t have to touch it. The elevator wasn’t working, so they had to climb five flights of stairs. Once they had reached her door, she unlocked it and motioned him inside.

“Don’t touch the doorknob. I’ll have to wipe it down before we go.”

There were only three rooms: a bedroom, a bathroom, and a small living and dining area. The latter contained a tattered couch and a rickety, wooden table next to a kitchenette. One metal folding chair was at the table. Waiting on the couch while Angel attended to her hygienic needs, Tommy considered their location. It was a section of town with which he was reasonably familiar due to his ambulatory wanderings. They were a short bus ride from the nearest hospital.

She took longer than he expected. It sounded like she was washing and rinsing the bathtub. He heard what sounded like her key hitting the tile floor. He knocked and called out.

“Are you okay?”

“Don’t come in. I need to clean everything I touched before I bathed.”

The distinct odor of bleach emanated from the bathroom door when it opened. Washed and changed, Angel emerged. Her guest observed with astonishment that her facial swelling and discoloration had already lessened.

“Sorry about the wait. I couldn’t leave any residue for the next tenant. I produced a lot tonight – more than usual. Wait a minute.”

She went into the bathroom and came back with a rag and a bottle of bleach. Carefully, she wiped the doorknob then returned her cleaning materials.

“That was quite an operation.”

“I’ve got it down. I always keep a change of clothes in the bathroom along with a plastic bag for the soiled clothing.”

Observing all she had done and said brought a question to mind.

“Do you always walk back after…”

“What else? I don’t dare sit on a bus seat or hand payment to the driver. Ready?”

Remembering the pavement where she had lain, Tommy wondered whether she was being careful to the point of superstition. He rose from the couch and followed her out the door.

“You’re right about getting it set,” she admitted as she turned the key in the lock. “I want my jaw properly aligned when it heals. Are you sure you’ll be warm enough?”

Her repetition of this concern made him wonder if she was concussed, but she showed no evidence of impairment.

“Don’t worry about me. Maybe you shouldn’t talk any more until we get to the hospital.”

They found the nearest bus stop, and Tommy got them onto the correct line. Angel picked up his fare, and they tried to ignore the stares of the other passengers. In relatively short order, they were standing at the emergency room admissions counter. After hearing the battered woman’s explanation that someone had broken her jaw, the receptionist started through her standard list of questions while avoiding Tommy with her eyes.

“Does either of you have insurance?”

A wave of helplessness swept over him.

“No.”

“Medicaid,” Angel broke in.

“Well, it doesn’t really matter,” the receptionist explained. “There’s an oral surgeon who works gratis for accident victims in your position. Let me call his emergency number.”

She entered the number and waited briefly while tapping her long fingernails on the counter. After speaking briefly with the party on the other end, she hung up.

“He says he’ll be at his office in about fifteen to thirty minutes. We’ll transport you at no charge.”

The humanitarian aspect of this concession was a by-product of legal necessity. The expense of an ambulance ride was preferable to a possible malpractice suit. One never knew when a patient might take offense and turn to litigation. Their conveyance dropped them off at the dentist’s door just as he drove into his office parking lot. As he approached, he eyed the pair suspiciously. Tommy’s size and appearance clearly unsettled him, and late night ruses to get at narcotics and other medications were an all-too-common professional hazard. Before unlocking his door, he made a request.

“Please slowly open and close your mouth, young lady.”

She complied, and he gently felt the sides of her face as she did so.

“Definitely broken,” he assented. “It’s good you arrived when you did. Tomorrow probably would have been too late for my services. You could have ended up in surgery. Depending on the extent of the damage, it still might be necessary.”

After waving the ambulance off, he showed them in, and Angel took a seat in the chair of one of his examination rooms.

“Let me get a quick X-ray. Can you bite down on this tab?”

She nodded and accepted the film into her mouth. Holding the plastic tab in place with her teeth, she could feel the vertical film casing against the inside of her upper and lower gums as she tried to ignore the discomfort. After the film was developed, the oral surgeon showed them the results on a computer monitor by the chair.

“I’d say you’ve been kicked by the toe of someone’s shoe. Your jaw is in three pieces: the left corner, a somewhat triangular portion at the point of impact, and the rest of the mandible.”

He paused and studied her intently.

“Can you tell me who did this to you?”

Angel hesitated, causing Tommy to look over at her.

“I don’t know their names,” she slurred with composure.

Her reaction and Tommy’s had not gone unnoticed by her examiner. With professional decorum, he resumed his diagnosis.

“Fortunately, your teeth are intact, and the breaks are in positions where I can set the bones by wiring your jaws shut. First, let me inject your gums on that side with a local anesthetic. I’m afraid it won’t eliminate all of the pain, but it should help.”

Angel didn’t flinch as she received the injection, and the good man went about his task as the anesthetic took effect. First, he wrapped wires around teeth at a number of corresponding positions on the upper and lower jaws. With fine-nosed pliers, he fashioned small hooks at the ends of the wires. A tiny but strong elastic band was hooked first to one wire hook and then stretched to its partner on the opposing jaw at each position. The tension of the bands held the broken lower jaw in a splint so that it could heal properly. When he had completed the procedure, he gave his patient her instructions.

“These wires won’t come off for another six to eight weeks, depending on how quickly you heal. Don’t try to eat any solid food while the wires are still on. You can drink whatever you want, but for something more substantial, I recommend baby food. Whether eating or drinking, you’ll need to use a straw. Do you have any questions?”

Closing her eyes, she shook her head.

“Let me warn you that your jaw could really be hurting by this time tomorrow. I’ll prescribe a mild analgesic in liquid form because you can’t open your mouth. The most serious discomfort should pass in a couple of days. After that, you just need to be patient. The wires and the immobilization can be a nuisance. I’ll be back in a few minutes after I’ve completed some preliminary paperwork. I do this kind of thing for no fee if necessary, but I do like to get paid. If you have it, please get your Medicaid information ready for when I return.”

He left the examination room, closed the door, and went into his office.

“That turned out better than I thought,” Tommy said in a poorly considered effort to keep her occupied. “When I first got a look at your face…”

“Be quiet,” she hissed through clenched teeth. “Listen.”

She squeezed a handful of his shirt in agitation.

“What’s going on? I don’t hear anything.”

“He’s calling the police. He thinks you did this.”

“A mandated reporter,” Tommy muttered, “and he thinks I’m the abusive boyfriend. What’s the problem? You can vouch for me.”

“I don’t want them to know who I am or what I look like. Please, let’s leave.”

Giving in to her panic, he followed her through the door and into the hallway which led to the waiting room. The office door, slightly ajar, was in the opposite direction. As quietly as possible, they left the building.

“How did you hear that?” he asked her.

“I guess I didn’t tell you everything about my nervous system,” she added. “It’s very sensitive in more ways than one.”

“Including you pain receptors, I’ll bet.”

“I’m used to it.”

She moved at an erratic but fast clip until they were around the corner.

“Do you know where we are?”

“I do,” he assured her. “We’re a few miles from where you live.”

“Which way? We need to hurry. We can’t risk waiting for a bus.”

She was stumbling again. He guided her by her shoulders in the right direction. Faltering, she clutched at his shirt.

“I’m getting light-headed, Tommy. I need to get off my…”

He caught her as she fainted. Though delayed and mild considering what she had been through, exhaustion and shock had set in. Thinking it over, he concurred with her advice. Waiting for a bus was out of the question. Now that they had fled, he would be suspected of battery, and his description to the police would be distinctive and unmistakable. Picking her up in both arms, he lifted her below her shoulders and knees. He had never born another person’s weight like this, and she seemed ridiculously light. She awakened shortly after her feet were elevated.

“You can put me down, now,” she protested.

“Not a chance. You might pass out again. Relax, and enjoy the ride.”

She faded in and out of consciousness while he carried her along. Wherever possible, he walked through alleyways to stay clear of the streets and any patrol cars that might be scanning the area. It was a long, nervous walk, and the peril brought with it a profound sense of loneliness. He could not be seen carrying a semi-conscious woman, and he ducked down behind parked cars to escape the attention of passing motorists when he was forced to resort to the sidewalks. If he felt overly exposed, he broke into a run until finding suitable cover. Due to frequently hiding and surveying his surroundings, he took over two hours to reach Angel’s apartment.

As he reached the door to her building, he peered anxiously into the lobby. It was empty. Fortunately, he had encountered not a soul during the entire, furtive journey. Gently lowering his burden to the floor of the entryway, he discretely pulled upward on the chain around her neck until the key emerged from behind her shirt collar. Once inside, he carried her up the stairs until he stood before her apartment. He inserted the key into the lock, gave it a turn, and heard the deadbolt slip out of the door frame. Twisting the knob, he pushed the door open and carefully entered with the precious package he had been cradling in his arms. A heretofore unknown surge of emotion coursed through him as he laid her on her own bed and retreated. She was unconscious when he did so.

He had intended to leave but thought better of it. She might need help during what remained of the night. Deciding to stay, he closed the door to the hallway. He had not bothered to turn on the lights, seeing instead by the faint illumination streaming in through the apartment’s lone window. A reluctant trespasser, he listened alertly as he sat down and stretched out on the couch. Sleep proved elusive, and he found himself making plans for sunrise. She would need something to eat, and he might be called upon in the morning to run an errand for the requisite baby food. Alternatively, he might receive a tongue lashing from this proud woman and be ordered out of her living quarters. These considerations aggravated his inability to doze off.

Tommy was uncertain as to how long he lay there in this unresolved state of mind, but he became aware of movement in Angel’s room. The door creaked open, and the sound of footsteps drew nearer. Was she heading to the bathroom? No, she was walking toward him. He opened his eyes to see her silhouette looming above him, and he hastily tried to arrive at a suitable explanation for why he was still there. Then he remembered that his jacket needed to be washed. Nothing else came to him, but it was just as well. He never had the chance to speak.

“Scoot over,” she instructed. “I want to know what it’s like to lie next to a man I can trust.”

He obeyed silently, and she settled into the space between his right arm and his body. Wincing from the effort, she carefully laid her head back on his shoulder. As old as it was, the couch was extraordinarily deep. Still it was barely wide enough, and Tommy had shifted to an uncomfortable position to make room for her. Angel was still dressed. The shirt she had changed into was long-sleeved.

“Don’t worry,” she reassured. “I’m not dangerous now. To make sure, I’ll be careful not to touch your skin.”

She was drifting.

“How often does this happen?”

“How often does what happen?” she whispered.

“You getting this roughed up.”

“Not usually.”

He groaned before he could prevent himself.

“Angel, we shouldn’t be here like this. You and I should be sitting in a coffeehouse and discussing great books.”

She absent-mindedly bent her right arm and touched his chest.

“That would be nice.”

Her hand fell away, and her breathing became more regular. Tommy exhaled a long, slow breath of his own. He was still wide awake, but his thoughts were undirected. Amid this confusion, they repeatedly flitted away but always returned to an inescapable certainty. The lithe but damaged woman asleep in the crook of his arm was lethal. Everything she had told him was true. After several minutes, his arm began to grow stiff and sore, then numb, but he dared not move it. She needed her rest. He could almost feel her regenerating as the hours passed, and an inexplicably comforting atmosphere permeated the stillness. Somehow, beyond all sensory verification, they were not alone.

 

 

Alias Adam (Chapter 7)

Chapter 7 – An Intimate Conversation

She rolled over in bed to gaze at his back. His outline was visible by the reflected light of the moon coming in through an open window. He was in his usual position, seated on the edge of the mattress.

 “Did you have another one?”

 “Can no mean yes?”

 “Do you want it to?”

 “Can yes mean no?”

“Perhaps it means that you simply need to make up your mind.”

 “Or that someone else already has.”

There in the darkness, they grew so still that they could barely hear the faintest of sounds above their breathing: the clock ticking on the wall in the living room downstairs, the rustle of leaves outside on the soft breezes of late summer, a neighbor’s dog barking a few blocks away. Within this soothingly discordant lullaby, something was coming – silent, inexorable, a promise of hope wrapped in dread. In this atmosphere, the impossible was vividly real.

“Do you hear that?” he asked.

 “Hear what?”

 “The clock.”

“Oh, yes.”

The rhythm of the timepiece was a constant presence in their home.

“Do you remember how we sat on the couch in your apartment before we were married and listened to it? I’d be there with my arm around you, knowing I couldn’t stay, hoping for five more minutes, and living fully within those five minutes when they came.”

“Yes,” she intoned fondly, “I remember. Life can be lived so well in such small increments. That antique belonged to my grandmother. I’ve loved it since I was a child.”

They both knew all of this. It was a well-worn theme. There was a shared comfort in saying and hearing it occasionally.

“The only things we needed were each other and the sound of that clock. Why can’t life remain that simple?”

“You once told me that the universe has a way of forcing itself on our attention.”

That I did, and that it does. What if it gets worse before it gets better?”

“What I’m hearing you say is that it will get better.”

She could tell by the way the back of his head moved that he was nodding.

“So are they back?”

He sighed deeply and waved his right hand in an oratorical sweep.

“They’re here by not being here.”

This part of the dialogue had become scripted, for he had taken to uttering it whenever this happened. Well-rehearsed, she knew her line and delivered it flawlessly.

“Present in absentia.”

“I’m sorry. I know I repeat myself. I keep living this same moment over.”

“And you want it to stop, but you don’t.”

He let out a brief chuckle.

“You obviously know where we’re going next.”

Propping herself on one elbow, she reached up and touched his shoulder.

“How did I do?”

“That might have been your best effort. Your voice inflection and timing were near perfect.”

Near perfect? I’ve gotten pretty good at this…”

“But we must never assume we’ve arrived,” he admonished facetiously.

“Wait now, you interrupted me. I haven’t given my last lines. Here’s the next one. Have you ever considered that it isn’t up to you?”

“Yes.”

“Then why are you trying to hold it up by yourself?”

“It’s hard to put down. You know how I am with an intriguing problem.”

She smiled at his back.

“You’ve decided haven’t you? It’s related to your project.”

“Oh, ‘admitted’ sounds more appropriate than ‘decided’ to me. They were so unpleasant that I couldn’t imagine them coming from the same source, but I see now that it was obvious from the beginning.”

“Then it should come as a relief.”

“How so?”

“It’s coming from somewhere else. You haven’t made it up. In spite of your reluctance, your resistance, the truth is asserting itself.”

“I know that what I began searching for is magnificent, but these are hideous.”

Though he spoke of his own impressions, she understood the last half of his sentence more deeply than he did.

“Yes, they are. Instead of trying to find what you’re looking for, why don’t you allow it to overtake you? Wouldn’t that be more consistent with its nature?”

“That would be a matter of trust.”

“Or doubt.”

“Isn’t it responsible to doubt my own judgment?”

“Only up to a point. What does your training tell you?”

“That if what got me started is real, it preceded me and will remain after I’m gone. I can’t force the message into my head. It will do so on its own terms.”

“Then aren’t you thinking too strenuously, thinking incorrectly by trying to solve this now? When someone else is involved, you must know when to be passive.”

“Perhaps you’re right.”

“That’s quite a concession, Professor. Is what you’ve been doing something like one student asking another questions instead of listening to you lecture? You used to complain about that.”

“What do you think?”

After forty-two years of marriage, she had grown accustomed to this elliptical banter.

“I like this. We’ve gone completely off script. See? You can be spontaneous.”

“We did get further,” he agreed.

“Here is my last thought on the subject for tonight. I think that if this is ultimately up to somebody else, you should relax and get some sleep. Then again…”

He took the hint. It often ended this way. Later, before losing consciousness, he whispered in her ear.

“But they’re still out there – somewhere – and they need help.”

 

Alias Adam (Chapter 6)

Chapter 6 – The Explanations Continue

Angel’s face betrayed not a hint of falsehood.

“Before I give you an answer, I need to say something. What I go through is violent. There are cuts and bruises, vaginal tearing, and considerable pain. I’ve been slapped and punched. I’ve had a knife held to my throat and a gun to my head. Another time, I was bound and gagged, and I had to depend on someone who happened by later to untie me. That was embarrassing. I hate it when my ability to resist is taken away, because I normally fight back – hard. I will not be a cooperative victim, and it lessens the likelihood of more serious injury. I also want to discourage an attacker – give him every chance to quit – and to make it very clear that what is being done to me is against my will.”

He held out his hand, signaling her to pause.

“Has anyone ever died without following through?”

“No. Identifying real offenders is something I’m good at. I’m responsible, and I have standards. I don’t try to entrap anyone who wouldn’t think to do this on his own. I’m not even after the kind of guy who gets too pushy with his girlfriend. My method and the settings where I operate tend to select violent and habitual offenders. I know that by going where I go, I assume risks that women are advised not to take. Aside from that, I do everything I can to protect myself except for three things. I don’t run because that would defeat my purpose. I don’t beg for mercy, and I never cry for help. Besides, I’m usually in places where those measures wouldn’t make any difference. I’m a good tracker, and that often leads me into fairly isolated areas like where we’re sitting.”

“So you tracked those guys here.”

She nodded.

“I found out about them from one of their victims. She works in the same bar as I do, and she opened up one night – said they’d followed her after she got off work. That was before I came to town, or they might have targeted me instead.”

“And she still works there?”

Angel shrugged.

“She’s a single mom who needs the money. Anyway, I figured they might be the types to lay low for awhile and then strike somewhere else. It had been awhile since she’d been attacked, and I started making the rounds of bars in different parts of the city on my nights off. My coworker had given me some approximate descriptions. All it took was being observant. Sometimes I could cover two or three places a night.”

“What about the evening you left me at that coffee shop in Westport? Where were you going?”

“Reconnaissance. I didn’t catch up with them until tonight.”

“Before I interrupted, you were explaining why you don’t have any marks and that you’ve been roughed up before.”

“Yes, I was. But you know what the worst is, the part of it that bothers me the most? It’s what they say. Not everyone talks, but you might be surprised by how many do. No matter how big they are, no matter how many, they’re cowards. They’re all afraid of getting caught, but it’s more than that. It’s like they’re trying to justify their actions by impugning my character. Their taunts and comments are unspeakably ugly because they involve more than words. Intent is hideous beyond anything I hear, see, or feel with my physical senses. I call it the invisible assault. Sometimes, the verbal abuse precedes the act as if they had to work up their resolve first.”

Not wishing to interrupt a second time, her listener remained quietly patient. She leaned lightly against him. It was an unconscious gesture and one that surprised him. He was unaccustomed to being touched except during altercations or unsatisfying sexual encounters. This casual contact was something new and incomparably more meaningful. People were not normally this relaxed around him.

“Now I’ll answer your question. I heal completely and very quickly. ‘Regenerate’ is probably a better word. Afterwards, it’s as if I was never harmed. I must have an extraordinarily high metabolism. When I’m recovering, I eat like a man, and I sleep a lot. The injured areas give off heat, but I don’t develop a fever. Minor cuts and bruises heal in hours, more serious damage in a day or two. I can actually tell when I’m thoroughly restored. It occurred to me that I might be able to feel processes in my body that normal people are never aware of. Every now and then, I wonder if I’m detecting things at the cellular level.”

“Assuming you’re right – that you heal that rapidly – what about broken bones?”

“That hasn’t happened.”

“You mean not yet.”

“Hey, I didn’t say this is without risk. No, not yet. Maybe not at all.”

“You’re not going to tell me you’re immortal, are you?”

“Do I look that gullible? I can’t bend myself out of shape by worrying about consequences, but I’m responsible about doing what I can to preserve my shelf life. My diet is healthy, and I get plenty of rest and exercise – mostly walking and calisthenics. I even wear my hair short and my clothes form-fitting since that makes them harder to grab and pull, and you’ll notice I’m not wearing any jewelry, especially necklaces or earrings. Except for infrequent conversations of any quality, I don’t waste time or effort on a social life because I can’t get attached. My only luxury is reading. The longer I last, the more good I can do. I’m performing a valuable service, and so far, I’m none the worse for wear.”

“Aren’t you concerned about sexually transmitted infections?”

“If you’re having trouble with what I’ve said up to now, you’ll reject this, too, but I may as well add another brick to the load. I have a freakish immune system, and I’ve never been sick – never. Not even a cold. For a while, I did get tested at this or that free clinic, just to make sure, but the results always came back negative. Eventually, I decided I could trust myself. I know my own body, and medical norms don’t apply to me. Disease isn’t a problem. When I die, it won’t be from that.”

Inoculated as he was against hardship, the surprisingly sensitive hulk of a man unguardedly let a look of worry slip across his features. He caught himself, but not soon enough. She gently placed a hand on his shoulder.

“This isn’t about living to old age. I saw the way you just looked at me, and I suppose it’s sweet. Yes, I’m playing the odds, and, yes, I might die. I’ve been knocked out before. Maybe one day I won’t wake up. That’s all.”

“Or maybe you won’t remember who you are.”

“My powers of regeneration extend to my head as well. I don’t get concussions or long term brain swelling. If anything, the repair is faster inside my skull. There are no symptoms, no impairments. I did consider the possibility, however, like I’ve considered everything else. I don’t act impulsively. I’m prepared, meticulous, and deliberate. To be on the safe side, I participated in a brain study before I first left Saint Louis. There are some outstanding hospitals there, and it’s not unusual to see fliers or on-line announcements for various research trials. I volunteered because I got paid and because I could find out the information I wanted to about myself. The MRIs and EEGs showed no signs of brain damage. There were more than the average number of folds and fissures, which I was told can be taken as an indication of superior intelligence.”

“If you’ll permit me another question, can you get pregnant?”

“That I don’t know. I never have been, but that could be because I routinely get contraception from free clinics or through Medicaid. Like you, I’m not always paid by employers who keep and submit records. My reported annual income is low enough that I don’t have to pay state or federal income tax, and I qualify for assistance with health care. I don’t take anything else from the government. Due to how I heal, I imagine my reproductive system is functional, but I can’t imagine ever having children – not with the life I lead or the toxin I produce.”

“But you’ve touched me.”

“Mostly through your clothing. I’m not under duress, and I don’t feel threatened. You’re safe. You wouldn’t have been if things had gotten farther along before you stepped in. I wouldn’t have touched you or allowed you to touch me if they had.”

Her story was evidently concluded. She started to rise, but he touched her knee carefully. She settled back onto the curb.

“Yes?”

“Does it feel good to get even?”

“No. It feels right. At least I get the satisfaction of knowing I’m doing what I can. Since I don’t resort to violence, I’m not a true vigilante. I’m like a dust mop, only better. A mop moves the dust around, and some actually clings to it. Ultimately, most just gets transferred from one place to another or is left behind altogether. The legal system is like that. Some perpetrators are caught and convicted, but only a minority. Of those who are incarcerated, most are eventually released, and some of them create more victims who must learn to become survivors. But imagine making the dust disappear. That’s what I do, and my approach is one-hundred percent effective with no recidivism. “

“Is that why you don’t spare yourself and get a gun?”

“Exactly. Then I’d be guilty of murder before finding out for sure whether they would have violated me. This way, I know they deserve it. The punishment is inherent to the crime, and I avoid being investigated and prosecuted.”

“If what you’re saying is true, you still can’t save the world, Angel. There isn’t enough time in one life.”

“But what about a piece of it? That’s why I work my circuit in the state where I live. I know cities like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles have bigger statistical problems, but they’re more expensive. I’d have a harder time supporting myself where there would be even fewer connections than I have now. At least I’m from this part of the country. So what if I fail? I’ll still have done some good.”

“How many?”

“How many what?”

“You know.”

“Are you sure you want to?”

“I asked, didn’t I?”

“Forty-seven, most by visual confirmation. I try to be there when they die, but not for the purpose of gloating. Following through to the end is the responsible thing to do. If I’m in no condition to keep them in sight, or if they have weapons, they still don’t get very far before expiring. I’ve always been able to find out one way or another.”

Shaking his head, he considered all he had heard. His hands dangled in front of him as he rested his elbows on his knees. She slipped a delicate hand through his arm.

“Well? Is there one person on this planet who believes me?”

“I want to for your sake, but this is outrageous. It’s impossible.”

She tightened her grip on his arm.

“But it’s real.”

Letting go, she brightened.

“That’s more than enough of this. Let’s change the subject. You listened to me. I’ll do the same for you if you like.”

“Will you walk with me, then?”

She gave him the same giggle she had used days earlier in the coffeehouse.

“At least I won’t have to worry about my safety.”

“All the same, I’d rather not knock those bums out twice in one night. Let’s move along before they wake up.”

He stood quickly, and she pulled herself up by hanging on to his hand. Already, they had established an ease of nonverbal communication despite the content of their conversation and the events which had preceded it. They took a few steps together, then, suddenly, she stopped walking.

“Oh. What about your job? You must have been gone for half an hour or more.”

“So a few more minutes won’t make any difference, right?”

They started off again. Aware that she was watching him expectantly, he began.

“You took me back to when you were twelve. I think I can top that, but the rest of the plot won’t match yours. I haven’t bored anyone else with the details of my life, but until now, I haven’t had the chance.”

“So get on with it, yeah?”

“Here goes. For starters, I have four biological parents.”

“How?”

“I’ll get there in a minute. How would you describe me physically?”

“Let’s see… large, powerful, quick…”

Her voice trailed off.

“You’re being kind. I don’t know if society is getting to the point where shades of melanin don’t matter as much, but based on my experience, how it’s distributed is still an issue.”

“I don’t care about that.”

“An awful lot of others do. The more polite ones stare briefly when they think I’m not looking and then turn their heads the other way. It’s the inverse of your problem. Maybe you can understand how being ignored can make a person self-conscious. Regardless of severity, I get it from blacks and whites. Mine is an equal opportunity condition. As for derogatory epithets, I’ve been called names like ‘half-nigger’ and ‘patches’ among those that are repeatable. The guys I work with call me “Two Tone Tommy” as a joke. Either they think I don’t mind, or they don’t care.”

“Is Tommy your name, then?”

“As much as yours is Angel.”

She permitted herself a soft laugh.

“Score. Go ahead.”

“I was an IVF baby. I was conceived in a fertility clinic – twice. I discovered this when I aged out of the foster care system at eighteen and demanded to see my file under the Freedom of Information Act. Along with my enrollment as a ward of the state, my birth information and some medical records – including genetic tests performed right after I was born – were included. The names of my parents were redacted…”

She carefully extended her arm in front of his chest, and he stopped.

“Do you ever think about finding your parents?”

“To say what?”

He laughed bitterly.

“Maybe we could work out a joint custody arrangement.”

She maintained an inquisitive silence, and they started walking again.

“It wasn’t all that much, but this small amount of information got me to reading seriously for the first time in my life. I started with articles about science because I thought they might tell me more about who I am, and that proved to be an effective back door into other forms of literature. I always was intelligent – just unmotivated until then.”

“But how do you have four parents?”

“Someone obviously messed up, but let me go back a little. From my informal study, I arrived at some logical conclusions. I don’t look like this because of some genetic defect. I’m derived from two different cell lineages, two racial types. The procedure that made me isn’t cheap, so my parents were at least fairly well off. My birth mother must have been at least thirty-seven because that’s the age above which multiple embryos are implanted to increase the odds of pregnancy. I must have been formed as a result of two things: a mistaken implantation of embryos from two different couples into the same woman and an accidental fusion of those two embryos in her womb. Even though it’s unlikely, there are a number of cases of such fusions occurring, especially in connection with the deliberate implantation of multiple embryos. What makes my case unique is that I have two mothers and two fathers. My last conclusion is that my parents obviously didn’t want me. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been placed in the system.”

“Okay. I think I understood about half of what you said.”

He went over it again, filling in his account with more background information and explaining it more slowly. She proved herself a quick study.

“Got it, I think. By the way, I know I said something like this a little while ago, but you speak very articulately for someone who didn’t finish high school.”

He grinned.

“Reading has its benefits. Besides, I get the impression that my school system was a little better than yours. I was taught pretty well, and some of it got in there even if my grades didn’t show it. Maybe my speech is geeked out because I mostly ended up defending geeks. They’d at least talk to me long enough to say thanks. Some would sit with me at lunch for protection.”

“Have you had any confusion about your identity?”

“Only in terms of having a family or a social group. I don’t know what it’s like to be part of something greater, but that could apply to everyone to at least some extent. I am who I am. I may be a mixture of traits from four parents, but I’m pure me. It may sound strange having only myself to refer to, but it’s all I’ve ever known. Other people won’t let me belong. That’s their problem.

“What I find laughable and disgusting is that they think they know me. Folks look at all the wrong things. When they notice my size and how I dress, they think I’m clumsy. Based on my skin and my hair, they think I’m stupid.”

“You’re definitely not stupid.”

“Or clumsy. I can do more than knock people down. Let me show you something.”

They had reached a parking lot abutting a brick building and surrounded by a chain link fence which stood a good eight feet high. He sprinted toward the corner of the building and leaped up and into the wall. When his waist was level with the top of the fence, he took a running stride off the wall with one foot and stepped onto the fence with the other. He then ran backwards along the narrow barrier until he was above Angel. Jumping off, he landed next to her, facing in the same direction, and resumed walking.

“Not bad for wearing construction boots,” she commented. “Are you done showing off?”

“Just making a point. That wasn’t for you as much as it was for everyone who’s made fun of me. I’ve been keeping it pent up. The only reason I showed you is because you haven’t ridiculed me. I feel no obligation to enlighten the arrogant. Rather than appear to brag by telling you what I can do, I decided to show you. I believe in evidence. The percentage of fast twitch fibers in my muscles must be off the charts, and I’m guessing my fine motor coordination and balance are better than those of a gymnast.”

“Then what about athletics? With your ability, you could have gotten a full ride to college.”

“You mean scholarships,” he said flatly.

“Yeah, scholarships. You could have had a free education at almost any university you wanted.”

“Well, that would require not getting kicked out of high school, which brings us back to the fighting.”

“Why do you fight?”

“Not for myself. If someone’s trying to bait me, I have no trouble walking or even running away. I don’t need to defend myself with my fists, but I can’t stand to see someone else being hurt. I put some classmates in the hospital for bullying a little guy in the hall, and that’s why I got expelled. It wouldn’t have been that serious if they hadn’t turned on me. It was an all out brawl.”

“Who’d be foolish enough to go after you?”

“I wasn’t quite this big then, and they put too much trust in their numbers. They didn’t know how strong I was by looking at me. Testosterone impairs judgment, and that applied to me, too. I didn’t need to unload as forcefully as I did. I’ve learned to regulate myself better since then. I had to. I’m bigger and stronger than I was, and I don’t want to kill someone. The scary thing about rage is that it makes me feel in control when I’m not.”

“Do your scars have anything to do with what you just said?”

“You’re very perceptive. More on that later. Anyway, trouble has a way of finding me, so I’ve turned it into sort of a profession. Where I work, I simply do what’s good for my employer’s business when things get out of hand. I’m supposed to put a stop to it without taking sides, but it’s in my nature to stick up for those who can’t defend themselves. That’s why I couldn’t watch you being roughed up without getting involved.  I never start a fight, but I always finish it.”

Angel frowned pensively.

“Tommy, you’re a lot like me.”

“Yes, like you” he answered with only a trace of sarcasm, “but with one major difference. You plan. I react. I tend to live more in the moment. I’m so quick that everything seems to happen in slow motion around me. I’ve taken out thugs who were drawing knives or guns before they had a chance to use them.”

“Then how did you get the scars?”

“Those are from when I was little. I had the foster parents from hell. My so-called dad was especially vindictive. The foster care system is overburdened. There aren’t enough qualified parents, and there aren’t enough caseworkers to supervise them. My house slipped through the cracks, and I got the worst of it.”

“Don’t tell me. You tried to protect your foster siblings.”

“I don’t know if I was courageous or rash. I made it slightly better for them and a lot worse for me.”

He pulled his shirt up again.

“Those little, round ones are cigarette burns. My foster mom helped by holding me down. When I got too strong for her, the husband took it out on me with a paring knife. He knew better than to stab. He made short, shallow slices that didn’t require stitches. Those are the longer scars. They’d patch me up and treat me better until I healed. Then the abuse would start all over again.

“This continued until I turned ten. I was always big for my age, but I had grown enough by then that I started to notice he was having more trouble restraining me. I knew I had him, that it was only a matter of time. I backed off a little, and waited for my body to develop. When I was twelve, I caught him at it with a younger kid, and something snapped. I went after him and held my own. He threatened to refer me to a caseworker, but I knew he didn’t dare, not with the way my stomach and back looked. I guess he thought I’d gotten lucky, because he started in on me the next week. I took it off of him.”

“Why?”

Tommy shrugged.

“It was only me he was hurting. I have standards, too, Angel. I wanted to make sure he really deserved what was coming, and I didn’t want him taking his frustration out on someone else when I wasn’t around. The next foster brother he attacked gave me all the justification I’d been waiting for. I decked him. When he came to, I’d called a meeting with everyone in the house, including his wife. Since she didn’t look too upset when I dropped him, I think she must have been helping him out of fear. We were all standing over him, and she knelt down beside where he was lying. I told them both the new rules of operation: no more abuse, and we’d do our assigned chores. Things in the house improved after that. The situation wasn’t ideal, but it was better.”

“Hold on. If there were other boys in the house, why didn’t you notify the authorities?”

You should ask… Back then, I didn’t even know who the authorities were or how any of that worked. I expect you can relate to my immature frame of reference at that age. My efforts were directed at putting an immediate stop to what was going on. That was successful, and I became a kind of hero to my foster brothers. I’ll admit I liked the way that felt.”

“So you kept it up.”

“I kept it up,” he repeated. “Most of my opportunities came at school, and I discovered that teachers and administrators didn’t appreciate my kind of altruism.”

“What happened to your foster parents and the other boys?”

“I was getting to that. By the time I aged out, I had a better grasp on the inner workings of the system, and I did expose what my foster parents had done. All I had to do was show the scars. That put the house on the map with caseworkers, and they examined the rest of my foster brothers. Same story. Since I’d never lived anywhere else but the orphanage, they couldn’t say I was that way when I got there, and they couldn’t explain away all the other evidence. The funny thing is, it was their cruelty and their greed that did them in. I’ll bet the main reason they kept all of us was the allowance for our care. They cut corners. We ate barely enough, and it wasn’t the best of fare – you know, day-old bread, mac and cheese. By keeping us in the house as long as they did, and by continuing to abuse us, they’d strengthened my case. I don’t know if they’re out of jail yet. As for the other guys, I never heard what happened to them.”

“Now it’s my turn to challenge your story,” Angel chimed in. “Didn’t anyone age out before you, and, if so, why didn’t they report it?”

“The only ones older than me – two of them – had a reputation as troublemakers who had been bounced from one home to another before they got to ours. They were too big to handle, and they got bounced again. I doubt they would have been believed even if they had been beaten, burned, or cut. I can’t imagine a middle-aged man of his stature having the guts to take on anyone as old as they were. That coward and his wife must not have been working their con all that long before I went to live with them.”

“If you weren’t eating all that well, how did you grow so big and strong?”

“When I was old enough – six, I think – I stole… from the cupboard and the nearest grocery. Then I discovered dumpster diving.”

“Okay. I’ve done some of that, too, except the stealing. I suppose your tale is more believable than mine, and you backed it up a little by showing me your wounds and performing that stunt on the fence. But I can think of more questions, too. Why don’t you get a G. E. D.? You could do it easily. I know it’s not much anymore, but it might get you better employment or a chance at college.”

He made an odd face as he considered this.

“Not likely.”

“Granted. But what about a tryout with a professional team in some sport? Don’t they have camps or something for the general public to see if anybody’s good enough to walk on and get a contract? Surely you’d be able to do something.”

“There are a few things wrong with that as I see it. Although I’m confident I could pick up the skills in one game or another, I’ve never been interested. With the number of scrapes I got into at school, I wouldn’t have been allowed on any of the teams, and I wasn’t encouraged by any of the coaches. I was labeled as not worth the difficulty, so I never received the background or the orientation. Also, what’s the use of putting myself in full view of a public that would rather not look at me? When they did, they’d essentially be paying to watch me do tricks, and I’m not a performing bear. What if they applauded? My attitude towards sports is that I don’t want to be ‘accepted’ only on the basis of what I can do.”

“But you could support yourself.”

“I’m supporting myself now. Neither one of us can instruct the other on financial stability.”

“What about using a higher salary to help the disadvantaged?”

This caught him short for a moment.

“I’ll have to give that more thought. If I can help them with my body, though, why not my mind? I don’t have the grades or placement test scores to prove it, but I know there’s a good engine under the hood.”

“And I have all that along with a college degree. You could ask me the same thing.”

“I wasn’t aiming at that. There’s another way I differ from you. I’m not as focused. When I’m confronted with something I don’t like, I deal with it. You already know I’m not much for thinking ahead.”

He stopped walking and pointed.

“Oh, look,” he said, feigning astonishment. “Here’s a bus stop. I’ll wait here until you’re safely aboard.”

“You didn’t have any trouble thinking ahead about that. You knew where we were going. I’m not asking for your protection.”

“And you can’t stop me from standing here. I hope this isn’t the end of me getting to know you.”

She looked at him sympathetically and took his hand.

“It probably is. Thank you for listening to me. You’re actually pretty good at it.”

They spoke little after that. With regret, he stayed dutifully by her until she had boarded the correct bus. He had been gone for well over an hour by the time he pushed the door open and entered the bar. The bartender assessed him dubiously.

“What about that tab?”

Tommy shuffled his feet.

“They’re, uh, not in a position to pay it.”

Somewhere between scorn and admiration, the older man smiled almost imperceptibly.

“I’ll bet they aren’t. Boss says you pull a disappearing act like that again and you’re fired.”

 

Alias Adam (Chapter 5)

Chapter 5 – Explanations

Tommy looked at her in bewildered disgust as a street light hummed overhead.

“Oh,” he said flatly. “One of those.”

Dejected at this turn of events, and embarrassed by his apparent lack of judgment, he turned away. She immediately reached up and grabbed his shoulder.

“Don’t walk away from me like that! I’m not a whore!”

He turned back to face her. His countenance softened if only for the fact that she was not afraid of him. From the moment he had met her, she had never acted put off by his appearance, and she was unfazed by the savage capability he had just exhibited.

“Look,” she insisted. “Men don’t usually treat me well, but you tried. When you talked to me before, you weren’t angling, and you really wanted to help me out here. You couldn’t have known any better, but you interrupted something you shouldn’t have.”

He dropped his shoulders in exasperation.

“Just let me finish what I have to say,” she insisted. “I go by Angel, but it’s not my real name. What you came in on is my career, but it’s not my job. I work like anybody else to support myself, and one of the men where I once worked told me I was an angel. He was more honorable than some but still kind of sketchy. I think he was trying to ask me out. For some reason, men call attractive women angels, especially if they’re blonde. It has almost nothing to do with our true character, at least not mine. I’m more like the angel of death.”

“You’re right,” Tommy conceded. “You’re not a whore. You’re crazy.”

“You might not think so if you knew my story. Care to hear it?”

“Why tell me?”

“I don’t know – you’re different. You listen.”

Her manner was direct and uncomplicated, and something told him she was worthy of his patience. Despite the bizarre turn of events, he still wanted to believe in her, so he nodded in assent and sat down on the curb. In one, smooth motion, she crossed one foot over the other, bent at the knees, and sat down next to him.

“You’ve heard of sex workers who are HIV-positive but who never get AIDS, yeah?”

“Sure. In the news, but it’s rare.”

“Very. Well, I’m not a sex worker, and I’m not HIV-positive.”

His forehead wrinkled like that of a little boy trying to solve a math problem.

“This isn’t going anywhere fast.”

“Hang on,” she reassured him. “It’s about to. I’m trying to decide where to start.”

She hesitated then set her jaw resolutely.

“All right. I don’t really want to go there, but the rest might not make sense if I don’t. My mother was an addict. Except for feeding me just often enough and taking care of other minimal responsibilities, she pretty much left me to fend for myself. When I was older, I had to take care of her. She also had a weakness for abusive men, a series of boyfriends. In their own objectionable ways, they liked her, but they liked me more.”

Her mind went back to the memory of waking suddenly in her darkened bedroom with a hand clasped over her mouth. Unaware of exactly what she was thinking but knowing the general content, Tommy closed his eyes.

“Go ahead,” he encouraged. “Stop whenever you want.”

“I was twelve the first time one of them paid me a visit. Mom was passed out, so she didn’t know. I tried to fight, but he was too big and too strong. Since I wasn’t used to it, I didn’t know what was happening at first, but it hurt. I remember feeling defiant and wishing he would die. Less than an hour later, he did.”

“Slow down. How did you know?”

“First, I could hear a door opening. Mine was shut. There was no way I was leaving my room, but I heard him start gasping. Then I heard him fall. I finally worked up enough courage to go out and see what had happened. We lived in government housing, a high rise, and the door to our apartment was open. He was lying face down, mostly in the hall, and he wasn’t breathing. Only his feet were still in the apartment. It felt weird, like a coincidence, but I knew that it had something to do with me, that he’d been punished for what he’d done. Should I go on?”

“Sure. I want to hear how this ends.”

“It hasn’t, and I don’t think it ever will, at least not until I die. Like I said, I don’t know why I’m telling you this when I’ve never told anyone else. Maybe it’s because you didn’t hit on me, maybe because you tried to protect me. You seem trustworthy.”

“Even if I don’t believe you?”

“Maybe I think I can convince you.”

“But why bother? You barely know me.”

She smiled. It was a curiously friendly gesture.

“Okay. I’m tired of men acting like I owe them something because I’m pretty. Please don’t think I’m conceited, but I can tell how they look at me.”

“To quote you from earlier this evening, what has that got to do with anything?”

“Let me finish. So many men ignore us unless they think we’re beautiful. Once they are paying attention, it doesn’t make any difference if we’re actually good at anything. When we succeed, they just say it’s because of our looks.”

“I didn’t mean to obligate you,” Tommy stated emphatically, “and I’m not them. You’ve probably figured out that women don’t normally talk to me – I mean really talk – so I got a lot out of that discussion we had earlier at the coffeehouse.”

“You’re missing the point. So did I. You’re unusual, in a good way, and I guess your opinion matters to me. Changing it might be worth the effort.”

He couldn’t tell if she really was insane, but she was sincere. There was nothing to fear from her except the possibility of wasted time, and he was willing to go on listening.

“Or the risk,” he countered.

“Yeah. That, too. Anyway, I kicked his feet out into the hall and closed the door. Later, a neighbor coming home called the police. They were knocking on doors and asking questions, but I didn’t answer. Our lights were out, and they eventually went away. My mother didn’t come to until after the body had been removed. Because of where we lived, I think they might have thought it was an overdose or something, but I never heard about any investigation or findings. Mom never did find out what happened to her boyfriend, and I wasn’t going to say anything. She thought he’d walked out on her. As far as I was concerned, it was good riddance.”

“Didn’t your neighbors know he was living there?”

“I don’t know. If they did, they must not have talked. It was best not to betray anyone to the police in that building.”

Tommy remained impassive. He was still trying to make up his mind.

“You said that was the first time.”

“Yeah. There were two others before I graduated from high school. My room had become a dangerous place. One died out in the parking lot, another in the apartment. My mother was briefly regarded as a suspect on that occasion, but there wasn’t any evidence to implicate her. They eventually ruled out foul play. A lot of cases went unsolved in that part of town.”

“Speaking of high school,” her listener reasoned, “how did a girl from a housing project prepare for college, let alone pay for it?”

“Did you ever read Emile by Rousseau?”

“I tried, briefly, but it was pretty dry.”

“It is, but there are some good passages. In one, he said that exceptional children aren’t raised. They raise themselves. That was pretty much me. I’m smart, and I worked hard at school. It wasn’t the best, but an English teacher who was good took an interest in me and helped me supplement the curriculum. She gave me extra things to read outside of class. Reading classics was my escape from the project, from the environment in my home. I made good grades, and I worked after school as a waitress to earn some spare money once I was old enough. I kept part of it back from my mom and used it to pay for the ACT test.”

“What was your score?”

“Thirty, but I didn’t study. My teacher recommended taking it, so I did. I didn’t know any better.”

“Way above average,” he commented.

“How would you know that if you didn’t finish high school?”

“I heard it enough in my classes. The faculty and administration were obsessed with standardized testing.”

“My school was kind of the same, only with more problems.”

“So you took the test. Junior year?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s when people usually first take it,” he commented. “I didn’t have the money or the motivation. I spent a lot of time in detention.”

“Need I ask?”

He raised his hands in surrender.

“Fighting. I managed to get expelled during the first semester of my senior year, but this is about you.”

“Right. So, achievement scholarships were available for Missouri high school students with scores like mine to attend any community college for free. I enrolled in the Saint Louis area – that’s where I lived – and I commuted from home. With my low income, my gender, and my grades, I got a very good transfer scholarship to a local four-year college, and I still worked as a waitress to make up the difference. When I turned twenty-one, I got a job in a bar. That paid better. I managed to graduate without taking out a student loan.”

“Sounds difficult.”

“Not the studying. I pick things up quickly, and my memory just works. Getting sleep was the challenge because of all the extra hours I worked.”

“Back to the main theme, then, how did this lead to your present, uh, career? I take it there were other assaults.”

“There were – one during the summer between high school and college. It was a neighbor from the projects who was a couple of years older. He’d been watching me for weeks, so he knew my routine – when I got home from school, when I got home from work.”

“How’d you find that out?”

“Oh, I notice everything that goes on around me. Trying to get away didn’t work. He ran me down. I recognized him when it happened, and I heard later that he was found dead in a stairwell in the next building. I know my story sounds strange to you, but back then I didn’t ask why this kept happening to me. I figured it was a consequence of where I lived, that it was happening to other girls, too. It was during college that I began to understand the improbability of my life history.”

“So it happened again?”

“Yeah. During my senior year when I was walking to the bus stop after studying till the library closed. It was a quiet part of campus – deserted, actually. Fifteen minutes sooner or later, and someone might have been close enough to hear me yelling, but I can’t say that with confidence. I was so mad that time that I followed him. He kept turning around and telling me to leave him alone, threatening to hit me, but I just kept after him. I asked him what he was going to do that he hadn’t already done, and that seemed to scare him. I’d already suffered the worst he was prepared to give out, and he tried to run away. That’s when he collapsed.

“When I reached where he was lying, he wheezed out a question about what I’d done to him. I reminded him that he had done something to me. Then he barely whispered, ‘Forgive me.’ I asked him if he was sorry because he had hurt me or because he was dying.”

“You knew he was dying, of course,” Tommy commented sarcastically.

“Of course I knew.”

“What was his answer?”

“There wasn’t one. He stopped breathing. The school’s intranet posted a story about the guy being found dead. It turned out that he was a fellow student but one I didn’t know.”

“You knew the others, then.”

Aware that he was stating the obvious, Tommy winced.

“That’s usually the case. You know, three of my mother’s so-called boyfriends, a neighbor…”

“Until the incident on campus which you never reported.”

“Do you disapprove?”

“It’s not that he didn’t get what he deserved. I’m just asking for the sake of argument. Not that you owed him anything, but could he have been saved if you’d called 9-1-1?”

“An ambulance wouldn’t have arrived soon enough.”

“What if you’d called earlier?”

“What should I have said – that I’m following a guy who’s about to stop breathing? Sure, I expected it to happen, but I couldn’t explain it. Besides, I never called in anything, and I don’t now. I didn’t want to be accused of something I hadn’t done. Do you know how often women get blamed when they come forward? Most rapes aren’t reported. Of those that are, most don’t result in arrest or conviction. There’s a national backlog of untested rape kits. Police are often skeptical, and victims are often vilified by defense attorneys. How do you think I’d have been treated if I’d been forthcoming from the beginning? Who’d believe someone who’s made a claim like that on multiple occasions? Right now, I’m having trouble convincing you.”

Her last questions were rhetorical. Aware that she was not expecting a response, Tommy chose not to interrupt her narrative.

“Anyway, this got me to thinking. Five assaults by five different people couldn’t have been coincidental. I asked myself if I was doing something wrong, or at least unwise, but I decided I wasn’t. My looks brought out the worst in the wrong individuals, and that wasn’t my fault. I dressed modestly. I didn’t send signals. I had no control over where I lived, and it was my mother who brought those men into our apartment. It was the neighbor boy who chose to stalk and attack me. I couldn’t help it if I had to study late and then walk to the bus stop when I was in college. My professor had placed a textbook I couldn’t afford on reserve, and I had a test the next day. By the way, I aced it. It was in ethics. Kind of ironic, yeah?”

“No comment. Keep going.”

“What I had noticed was that my skin gave off a certain sensation every time I was attacked but never otherwise. I finally made the connection. This was my body’s way of defending itself. I must have been giving off some type of poison, so I did a little personal research. A number of animal species are poisonous, some of them producing neurotoxins that cause respiratory arrest. There are frogs that are poisonous to the touch. I know it’s not normal for humans to do that, but I’m sure that’s what happens with me. I’m passing it through unwanted contact with my skin, which is unavoidable during such, you know, circumstances.”

“I think I know what you’re going to say, but how are you protected from what your body produces?”

“Do you know how neurotoxins work when they cause respiratory arrest?”

“A little. It depends on the substance. They work in different ways, and I’m not familiar with all of them. I just did a little reading to satisfy my curiosity.”

“About what?”

“It might be a weird omen given the name on the back of your shirt, but I wanted to know about cobra venom. I was flipping through a science magazine at the public library when I saw an article about it. I wondered how it could work so quickly, so I did an on-line search for more articles.”

Following that comment, Angel’s voice grew more excited.

“Because of the symptoms it causes, that’s one I read up on, too. It’s a protein that binds muscle cell receptors. Acetyl choline made by nerve endings can’t bind the blocked receptors, so the muscle cells stay relaxed for lack of a proper signal. The prey stops breathing. The cobra isn’t affected because its receptors are altered so that its own venom can’t bind them. Something like that must be true about me.”

“Is that what you think you are, a Naga, a cross between a woman and a cobra?”

“No. That’s silly.”

“So what’s with the shirt?”

“Fair warning. I’m biohazardous, toxic.”

“Like a cobra.”

“But I doubt my toxin’s the same. Proteins don’t absorb readily through the skin, do they?”

“Not that I’m aware. Remember, though, you majored in English, and I didn’t major in anything.”

“But we’ve both looked the topic up. I don’t know what I’m making, but it must absorb through the skin rapidly. So it has to be a molecule smaller than a protein. Other neurotoxins such as curare work similarly to cobra venom. Some work differently, like you said. For example, anatoxin-a is made by a certain species of blue-green algae. It binds receptors at neuromuscular junctions to cause permanent muscle contractions. It’s an opposite mechanism that has the same effect. That’s all I remember. I know I must sound like a nerd, but from what I’ve told you about myself, you can see how information like that would stick in my mind. Cobra venom kills in less than half an hour, but it’s injected directly into tissues through the fangs. Mine works a little more slowly.”

“You know, you don’t exactly talk like most people our age.”

“What age is that?”

He cocked his head slightly to one side and sniffed.

“Approximate. You told me the first time we met that you graduated from college a few years ago. That makes us about the same age.”

“Yeah, well I was socially isolated at home and in high school…”

“I’m socially isolated everywhere.”

She put a restraining hand on his arm.

“… and I was a commuter student in college – a loner. I didn’t get many opportunities to pick up speech from my peers, and I honestly wasn’t that interested. I pick up a little here and there, but I learn expressions more from what I read. You don’t exactly talk like people ‘our age’ yourself.”

“I didn’t want to sound like the kids who ostracized me. So you’ve been assaulted several times, and your attackers have all died. How does that get us to the point of you getting mad at me for preventing a gang rape?”

“Like I said. I got to thinking. I’m attractive to men in ways that allow some of them to think they can do whatever they want with me. If they succeed they die, and they’ll never harm anyone again. Remember, I’d been studying for an ethics test before that assault on campus. I made the connection, considered it, and came to a logical conclusion. Not everyone is granted a happy existence, and some are called on to be self-sacrificing for the sake of others. I realized that I’m one of those people. My physiology and my looks have given me a responsibility, an ability to do something that helps others. Every time I’m raped, it means that someone else isn’t, and at least some of my attackers – most, actually – would have done it again. I save other women from having to go through what happens to me. I especially want to eliminate as many serial rapists as I can.”

She paused to give him the opportunity to absorb what she was saying. His expression indicated that he was already ahead of her.

“Now about those guys you just… met. You saw the way they acted – no hesitation at all. Do you think I’m the first woman they’ve accosted?”

“Probably not.”

“Definitely not,” she lectured. “Do you think I’ll be the last?”

He looked over his shoulder toward the mouth of the alley.

“No.”

“But I would have been if you hadn’t interfered. From now on, don’t get in the way. I might still be able to fix this.”

Thinking of what to say next, her would-be savior stared down at the asphalt between his feet. This exchange could go in any one of several directions. Was she telling the truth, or was she delusional? Were her descriptions of the deaths of those who had harmed her nothing more than wishful thinking after the fact, and was this self-deception driving her to take unwarranted risks? As evidenced by her behavior and her courage, she was fiercely principled, and her bearing was one of conviction. She deserved fair treatment. Her claims were in need of further scrutiny.

“You said all this happened in Saint Louis. Why bring your act all the way here?”

“My ‘act’ plays just as well here and in a few other places besides. I work a circuit from Saint Louis to Columbia, then to Kansas City, Joplin, Springfield and back to the beginning. It’s been three years, and I’m in the middle of my second lap. Those are all large cities or university towns, and they’re along a triangle of interstates: I-70, I-49, and I-44. That means I can use commercial bus lines to travel. More importantly, they all have the same problem.”

He was unimpressed by this last statement.

“Can you name a place that doesn’t?”

“I mean a chronic and acute problem,” she corrected herself.

“How do you define that?”

Her tone was indignant.

“In the media, words fly back and forth about hidden agendas and the accuracy of statistics. My litmus test is more practical. Wherever you see posters and ads announcing counseling services for victims of sexual assault, that community has a chronic and acute problem. Law enforcement agencies in each place I go keep monthly or annual statistics on the number of sexual assaults in their jurisdictions. In Joplin and Columbia, the range is from about ten to seventy, depending on the year. But for Springfield, Kansas City, and Saint Louis, the numbers are over two-hundred – more than three-hundred for Saint Louis, and they break it down by neighborhood. Those are just the ones the police know about. For reasons I already gave you, most go unreported.”

“Alright. You’ve told me how you kill, but how do you live?”

“First of all, I’ve never killed anyone. They kill themselves by attacking me. With my looks and job experience, I’ve always been able to find work in restaurants and bars. I make just enough to live on while I hunt. I rent affordable accommodations if I have the money. If not, I find a women’s shelter. I walk to get around, or I use public transportation when it’s available. I’ve never been in a car. That may sound hard to believe, but I have no friends and little in the way of capital. Cabs are too expensive. When I build up sufficient resources, and when things slow down – or when I get injured – I move on.”

“Since you brought that last item up,” Tommy countered, “here’s the main reason I’m having trouble believing you. You have such perfect skin.”

“Oh, please,” she countered. “I thought you were different.”

“I am.”

He rolled up his shirt to display his torso. Even in the poor lighting, it was obvious that his front and back were covered with scars. Small and round, thin and elongated, they marred the patchwork of his pigmentation.

“I know the signs of repeated abuse,” he challenged. “These are mine. Where are yours?”

 

 

Alias Adam (Chapter 4)

Chapter 4 – Encounters 

As he shuffled along slowly, passers-by looked briefly up at him with differing mixtures of curiosity, pity, and revulsion. The large man simply noted that it wasn’t as bad here in Westport as in some other portions of Kansas City. It was July and characteristically hot. More than a few denizens of the sidewalks in this neighborhood wore black T-shirts which revealed tattooed arms and necks. Black denim pants were also part of the uniform, as were odd hair styles and body piercings. Against this visual backdrop, his own appearance did not stand out as much, but it still drew attention. With the heat making him sluggish, he drifted into wondering about individuality, conformity, and whether there was really any difference between the two.

Gradually, he became aware of a voice. Starting softly, it repeated itself and grew louder, penetrating his inward deliberations. Rousing himself, he turned toward its source. Walking next to him was a somewhat provocatively dressed woman of about his age. Her hair was dyed black and white, and her clothing – tight, form-fitting, and inexpensive – matched.

“There you are,” she announced coyly. “For a minute there, I thought you were deaf.”

“Did you ask me something?”

She winked. It struck him as slightly absurd.

“Not yet. I just said hello.”

“Hello,” he deadpanned. “What do you want?”

Her manner made him suspicious.

“In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m coming on to you. We could make it. We match.”

“Make it?”

“Exactly. You know what that means, right?”

He stopped walking, and they turned to face each other.

“I suppose I do. You think we match, huh?”

“So you can listen. We match, and we could make it. That’d be cool.”

“You mean I can be tonight’s fashion statement,” he snapped. “When you get bored with it, you can change your hair color, but I’ll look like this for the rest of my life. You’re nothing like me. Go home, and play with your toys.”

Her eyes narrowed, and she inspected him disapprovingly. He stood at an imposing height of six feet and seven inches, and he weighed two-hundred and eighty-five pounds. His shoulders were broad, his arms thick, and his hands large and powerful. Loose fitting jeans hid the muscularity of his legs. He balanced himself on big feet shod in construction boots. A gray and out of fashion, short-sleeved shirt with a collar covered his expansive chest. Despite his bulk, he carried not an ounce of excess fat on his body. The man, twenty-five years of age, looked ponderous and uncoordinated in his unstylish attire.

But the physical features which set him apart, the ones that drew so many furtive glances, were his complexion, his hair, and his eyes. Blonde hair, straight and fairly long, was interspersed with black, kinky shafts, the patches of which were napped and unruly. His beard, eyebrows, and lashes were similarly variegated. His right eye was blue, his left brown. What was visible of his skin was almost reticulated like the hide of a giraffe, only more finely and more irregularly. Territories of white and black skin looked to have established borders maintained by an uneasy truce. Added to his formidable bulk, his chimerism produced an overall impression which was almost monstrous.

“You don’t have to get conceited about it,” she shot back. “With looks like that, you probably don’t get too many offers.”

“But when I do, they’re always the same. Women who proposition me want novelty now and a story to tell friends later. You’re not being original. Find someone else to star in your freak show.”

She looked shocked, and he felt a pang of conscience. Checking himself, he continued in a softer tone of voice.

“Look… I’m sorry. It’s not your looks. You’re pretty and all, but depending on where I hang out, this kind of thing happens to me more than you might think. Every time I say yes, I end up regretting it. What you’re asking for just doesn’t lead anywhere.”

Her expression changed to one of confused irritation. The conversation had strayed well down a path she had not anticipated.

“What’s wrong with you? Are you mentally insane or something?”

Whatever was coming next, be it further ridicule or outright disgust, he gave up. This had gone past a point where he cared what his antagonist thought. He eased forward into her personal space.

“Not really. You see, it’s like this. Basically, I just like to hurt people.”

She started, looked up at his sullen face, and scurried away rapidly, checking over her shoulder a couple of times to make sure he wasn’t following her. He turned and resumed walking. The trick had worked as expected. It always worked.

To get out of the heat, he popped in and out of some stores and pretended to look for items in the aisles. He was careful not to stay too long in any one place lest proprietors and their customers should grow nervous. By now, these considerations were reflexive, almost unconscious. Sometimes, people’s reactions amused him as sadly ironic. Then there were the dark moments when that slow, subterranean rage waited for the right challenge or threat to bring it roaring to the surface.

The mottled man wandered haphazardly until the sun was lower in the sky. His shift did not start until later that night, and he was bored. Feeling for a few bills in his left pocket, he decided to head toward the nearest coffee shop. The staff had grown used to him and a plethora of other strange characters as well, so this was an atmosphere where he could relax as long as he purchased something to drink.

On reaching his intended destination, he opened the front door and walked in. The air conditioning was on but set economically. As he waited in line, he noted that the temperature was enough on the warm side to discourage much movement. When it was his turn to order, he opted for iced tea. Drink in hand, he headed toward the back wall and searched for a table at which to sit. The establishment was reasonably full, and the décor was minimal, with no isolated, soft chairs. At least one person was at every table, so he picked his preferred location.

Observant and pensive by nature, the young man preferred sitting along the back wall where he could see the entire interior and watch humanity on parade outside the storefront window. In his peripheral vision, he spotted an attractive woman seated at a good location. The chair on the opposite side of the small table was unoccupied. He sat down then sipped slowly and intermittently for a few minutes, expecting her to get up and leave. She did not, and this surprised him. Strangers usually moved away from him after what they considered a polite delay.

He looked down and to his left and noticed that she was reading a paperback copy of The Divine Comedy. This in itself was different. In a room of laptops, electronic tablets, and smart phones, she was reading a hard copy of a book – and a classic, at that. An attempt at conversation was merited.

“Pardon my interruption,” he started, “but you’ve got a good book there.”

“Have you read it?”

He could not tell if she was testing him, but her response gave him an opportunity to look at her more directly. The first thing that caught his attention was that her appearance was as beautiful and natural as that of a child even though she must have been in her twenties. Her blonde hair, cut short like a swimmer’s, was clearly its real color. It matched her eyebrows and eyelashes, for she wore not a trace of makeup. It was atypical for a woman with such fair features not to darken her eyes, and, aside from the fact that she was unassumingly stunning, he found it compelling that she had such confidence. Her example made him wonder what it was in society that made so many beautiful, little girls grow up into insecure women.

As for her complexion, it was clean and unblemished. What arrested him most, however, were her eyes. The irises were pale green with thin threads of blue and gold radiating into their delicate musculature from her pupils. Beyond these physical impressions, the expression on her face was inquisitive and honest. She genuinely wanted to know the answer to her question.

“Twice,” he answered. “How far along are you?”

“I’m in purgatory. So what did you think of it?”

“Purgatory?”

“No,” she giggled with soft maturity. “I mean the whole work.”

“I liked it enough to read it twice. What about you?”

“I read it before in a more literal translation. I heard this version was really good and that it tried to follow a scheme something like the rhyme and meter used by Dante. It was translated by another poet named John Ciardi. I like all the footnotes explaining the historical and cultural references. They help me make more sense of the poem. Of course, I have to wonder whether I’m reading Dante or Ciardi in some places.”

“But did you like it?”

“Oh,” she exclaimed in mild surprise, “I suppose I enjoyed the ride, but ultimately it didn’t take me where I wanted to go.”

“And where would that be?”

“That’s the real question. I’m afraid I haven’t found out yet.”

He looked into an imaginary space above her head.

“Purgatory’s still interesting” he stated. “Beatrice showing him around heaven was kind of a letdown.”

She smiled enigmatically.

“I agree.”

“So what other literature do you like?”

She thought for a moment.

“I enjoy lots of genres – mostly the serious stuff, I guess. I’m a fan of John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath was so insightful. It really made me think. I was kind of surprised at how he could write about such a grim subject and inject a sense of humor in the right places.”

She paused.

“Okay, your turn.”

“Fair enough. I’m attracted to sarcasm and humor, especially if the author has a serious point to make. Since we’re on Steinbeck, have you ever read The Short Reign of Pippin IV?”

“Yes. Don’t you think he has such a grasp of how things fit together, how they work?”

“Exactly. The man understood cause and effect – that and human motivation.”

“Do you have a favorite book?’

He was finding the exchange enjoyable. In his case, this kind of thing was an extremely rare pleasure, especially with a member of the opposite sex. Some propositioned him, as had happened earlier that afternoon, but the majority normally avoided him. In response to her query, he had no trouble making up his mind.

Theophilus North by Thornton Wilder. The structure of that story really impresses me, and I love how the main character interacts with the snobs that surround him. I just finished reading that one for the third time. So what are your favorites?”

“It depends on what I’m into at the time,” she replied. “Something calls out to me, and I read it. Right now, I’m just trying to get out of purgatory. You seem to be pretty well read. Did you go to college?”

“Me?” he laughed. “Not exactly. I didn’t finish high school. So you’ve been to college?”

“Yeah, I graduated three years ago. My major was – guess what – literature with a minor in philosophy. But where did you get your exposure? Most people don’t read much of anything, let alone the books you’ve mentioned.”

He picked up his cup and scrutinized it for a moment.

“Hmmm. To begin with, I don’t own much of anything, but I like to stay stimulated. My job involves late hours, and it’s only part time. After sleeping in, I like to go to the public library in the late mornings or early afternoons. My pay lets me live hand-to-mouth, and I don’t get any benefits. Reading is some of the only entertainment I can afford. Television doesn’t take long to wear me out.”

She smiled approvingly at that last sentence.

“I never watch television. How about your job? Does it work for you?”

He frowned and shrugged his shoulders.

“It’s a job. I can eat and rent a cheap room. That’s about it. Right now, I might have enough to pay for meals until I get paid next week. My employers don’t keep tax records on me, so they don’t deduct for social security or income tax. It’s cash under the table, as the saying goes.”

“That sounds kind of like my situation,” she followed wistfully. “I hate my career, but I’m devoted to it.”

“I don’t get it. Why?”

“It’s too important for me not to be.”

He wrinkled his nose slightly.

“What could be that important?”

“I’d rather not say. Why didn’t you complete your education?”

He smirked.

“I’d rather not say. I’m not proud of it.”

She reached into her bag and looked at her phone.

“Oh. It’s been nice, but I have to get ready for work.”

“Evening shift?”

She gave him a trace of a smile. It betrayed a sense of sadness and longsuffering.

“Something like that.”

“Wait,” he implored. “You didn’t mention your name.”

“No, I didn’t.”

She patted him lightly on the shoulder.

“Thank you for talking to me about books. Men don’t usually do that with me.”

He watched her go out the front door, turn right, and disappear beyond the margin of the window. Her departure left an ache he did not recognize. Someone seated at the table to his right had left a laptop unattended to go to the restroom. While thinking this rather foolish of the owner, he stole a glance at the time in the lower right hand corner of the screen. He had far enough to go that if he started walking now, he could arrive at work before his shift started.

The encounter had been a refreshing break from his customary isolation. Most people saw him as intimidating, frightening, repulsive. Whether from a distance or at close quarters, he lived as a social phantom, an apparition looming on the fringe of society. With an annual income which was below the taxable limit, and laboring for an employer who did not issue earnings statements, he had never filed an income tax form or applied for assistance of any kind. Although he was a citizen of the United States, his government barely knew he existed. A social security number had been assigned to him while he was in the system. He had no investments, no bank account, health insurance, or credit cards. On those few occasions when he was sick, he simply persisted in his normal routine until he got better.

It would be two days before this unique man would encounter the mysterious, blonde woman again. She occupied a fair amount of his waking thoughts, and this perplexed him. Women typically failed to impress him, so why did he find her so compelling? It was more than her facial beauty or her graceful physique, even more than the fact that she had spoken openly with him and without reservation.  As he inquired within himself, no enlightenment was forthcoming.

Seemingly by accident, she wandered into his place of employment one night. It was a less than reputable bar in a rough part of town, and the customers were typically male. He couldn’t remember her attire from their last meeting. It had been subdued, but tonight she wore black tights, a pair of beige loafers, and a bright orange tee shirt with three-quarter length sleeves. A black biohazard symbol was printed prominently on the front. The words “NAGA CHILD” were in small letters at shoulder level across the back.

Her presence there simultaneously pleased and alarmed him. He had been carrying a case of whiskey in from the storeroom when he saw her sit down in a corner booth. It took him a few minutes to set the case down behind the counter, unpack it, and place the bottles on a shelf behind the bartender. While accomplishing this task, he kept an eye on his recent acquaintance. Some customers with whom he was also recently familiar and for whom he did not care were leering at her steadily. In hopes of discouraging them, he walked over to check on her when he was done. She did not look at all startled as he approached.

“So this is where you work,” she announced.

“Such as it is,” he confirmed. “Have you made it out of purgatory?”

Not as accessible on this occasion, she went oddly vacant.

“Not yet.”

“No books?”

She held up empty hands.

“No books, no distractions.”

“You’re a long way from Westport,” he commented.

“What has that got to do with anything?”

He looked carefully at her trying to discern her thoughts. She did not strike him as being naïve despite her innocent demeanor. Something was definitely going on in there, and she was acting like a different person than the one he had met previously. Attempts to bring up topics of common interest were not having the anticipated effect.

“I’m pretty sure you’re aware this is a rough joint. You really shouldn’t have come in here.”

She sighed almost imperceptibly.

“My work takes me all over the city. I had to be in this area tonight.”

“What kind of job would require someone like you to be anywhere near here?”

She examined him blankly, making it obvious that she did not intend to divulge any more information. Feeling awkward, he looked down at the table in her booth.

“Whatever your reason for choosing this place, you didn’t come in here to drink. You haven’t touched your beer since you set it down.”

“It’s just a prop so I can sit in here for awhile. I need to keep my head clear. I’m getting ready to go to work.”

“If that’s the case, you’re working an even later shift than I am. Last time we talked, you left for work a lot earlier.”

“The hours are flexible,” she explained in a peculiar tone of voice, “but you’re on right now. Won’t you get in trouble for talking to me?”

“No.”

“Then what are you doing here?”

It struck him that she was being unfair, asking him about his job while refusing to identify her own. He considered not telling her, but her manner was honest and unassuming. Was she putting him off? No, this struck him as unlikely, for she seemed devoid of malice or guile.

“Waiting for a fight,” he responded. “I do menial things – whatever’s needed – but I’m also the bouncer.”

“How do you know there’s going to be a fight?”

“There usually is. I’m paid to end it quickly and prevent damage.”

“That’s your job description,” she commented unemotionally.

“Right, but I can’t start anything. The owner doesn’t want any trouble that would lead to the police being called. His customers frown on that. I’m supposed to walk softly and throw the last punch. It’s one of my many talents.”

He briefly looked over his shoulder.

“Which leads me to the four goons at that table over there. They’re a problem waiting to happen, and they’ve given me just enough grief not to get themselves thrown out. They haven’t exactly been looking at you with good intentions.”

Her pupils constricted, but not in fear.

“Yeah,” she muttered. “I noticed.”

The young woman thought for a moment as if delaying a decision.

“There’s another story by Steinbeck,” she offered vacantly in the manner of someone trying to buy a little extra time. “It’s especially meaningful to me.”

“Which one is that?”

In Dubious Battle. He named it after a phrase from Paradise Lost by John Milton.”

He inhaled sharply and flashed an angry look at the ceiling. Although his hands were momentarily under the table, she could tell from the contraction of muscles in his forearms that his fists were clenching.

“I read that one, too,” he said in a low tone. “It’s interesting, but it made me mad. Why do you like it?”

“I didn’t say I liked it,” she snapped softly. “I said it’s meaningful. It has this theme about fighting against impossible odds without any chance of winning.”

His eyes settled on her without blinking.

“I know that feeling,” he responded sullenly.

After staring at the tabletop for a few seconds, she made up her mind. She pushed her chair back, rose quickly, and slid it back up against the table.

‘I’d better get going. I’ll be on soon.”

With graceful strides, she passed where the ruffians were sitting. Their heads turned to follow her as she headed for the door. Not one pair of eyes was above waist level. The men looked at each other while she went outside, scooted heavily out of their seats, and sauntered out in pursuit. They had not paid their check. The bouncer made up his mind. He paced quickly to the door, causing the bartender to shout after him.

“Where you goin’, Tommy? Boss pays you to stop trouble in here, not out there.”

“Those punks just skated on their bill,” he called back hurriedly.

Bursting onto the sidewalk, he looked up and down the street, but nothing was moving. At regular intervals, street lamps reflected off of the windshields of a few parked cars or shined small ellipsoids of light onto the pavement below. Where could they have gone? He rounded the corner on which the bar was situated and stopped to listen. Suddenly, he could hear the sound of a scuffle nearby but out of sight.

“Stop it! Leave me alone!”

It was her. The sounds of ripping fabric and male voices laughing coarsely dissipated into the darkness. They were in a depressed business district nearly deserted at that hour of night. Many of the buildings were unoccupied, some with broken windows. No other help was available. The disturbance was emanating from an alley that ran behind the bar.

Despite his considerable size, the splotched man was agile and astonishingly quick. He sprinted into the alley and saw the four toughs in a ring around their intended victim. They had been pushing her back and forth between them and issuing salacious and belittling taunts. The left sleeve of her shirt was torn at the shoulder, and her handbag was at her feet with some of its contents spilled. Pushed from behind, she fell awkwardly onto her side.

At the sight of beauty roughly handled, he instantly directed his mind toward the concentrated anger which was never difficult for him to find and summon. Terrifying yet familiar, it focused his attention and facilitated his actions, and it made him feel more in control of his emotions than he really was. Springing forward, he fell upon the assailants in a calm fury as they advanced on their target. Four blows were delivered in no more than a couple of seconds. The rhythm of the impact was similar to that of an old-fashioned typewriter. In surreal echoes, four unconscious bodies of above average size fell like bowling pins, landing with dull thuds on the broken concrete. The lopsided altercation had ended before his adversaries could become fully aware of his presence.

Surveying the aftermath to make sure that all threats had been eliminated, he turned to the fallen woman and offered her his hand. Something did not feel right. She looked annoyed, not frightened or grateful, as she refused his hand and pulled herself up by gripping one of his pant legs. Standing with her hands on her hips, she stared intently as he politely placed the scattered items back in her bag and handed it to her.

“Come on,” he offered. “Let’s get you out of here and call the police.”

“No police,” she whispered angrily. “I won’t press charges if you do, and then you might get arrested for knocking them out.”

Slightly stunned by her insistence, he began walking. There was more to her personality than he had gathered through his first impressions. This made him uneasy, but it also rendered her more intriguing. She walked next to him, fuming inwardly. When they reached the mouth of the alley, she stopped and whapped his shoulder with her bag.

“You moron!” she scolded. “I didn’t need to be rescued back there. I was hunting.”

 

 

Alias Adam (Chapter 3)

Chapter 3 – Developments 

By means of chemical signals, growing and dividing cells communicated with each other as is normal during embryonic development. The substances they emitted diffused to set up multiple gradients of concentration, and each cell responded differently based on its position within these overlapping fields. As different sets of genes were activated, the cells began to change, one from another, into the various tissues of the human body. Some differentiated into neurons, others into muscle fibers, and so on until an appropriate diversity of cell types had been achieved. Some embryonic cells crawled to their proper locations before differentiating. All of this movement and change produced the spatial patterns necessary for the formation of organs and an overall body plan.

During all of their dividing and crawling about, the cells of the male chimera became so intermixed as to produce multiple islands of tissue of one racial type or another. These disparate islands existed in all tissue layers of all organs. Cells from two sets of parents communicated back and forth in a genetic synergy which was to endow the emerging individual in Kansas City with unusual physical prowess. Both sets of parents were intelligent, athletic, and wealthy. Had the embryos which formed him not been injected together, had they not fused, he could have been two star athletes, two honor students born and raised in the cradle of opportunity. Instead, he was to be more than their sum but less in the estimation of others, a conflicted and troubled young man of unappreciated talent.

The invisible thread vibrated, and changes were triggered in Saint Louis. The substance abuse of two parents had set in motion a synergy of chemicals and mutations in the tissues of what would become organs of unprecedented function in a human being. Even normal organ systems would take on abnormal characteristics in this female, and this chain of action would be further aggravated by the continued drug use of her mother. The mutations could have been detrimental, neutral, or adaptive. Improbably – one might say impossibly – all were adaptive, improving the odds of survival. Bathed in poison, the embryo within the addict evolved unusual tolerances, immunities, and biochemical traits by means of the mutations suffered.

Barely visible at the end of the third week after conception, each of the entangled embryos resembled a tadpole with a knob-like head, a central bump in which internal organs were taking shape, and a tail containing the rest of its forming spinal column. In the fourth week, each was somewhat curved in shape, with head enlarged, limb buds forming, and tail being encased by the growing body. The neural tube closed as a prerequisite to forming the brain and spinal cord, and a tiny heart was functioning. Growing limbs looked like paddles by week five. Faces and eyes were taking shape, and nostrils were present. Brains were developing and engaging in electrical activity. The embryos were the diameter of a pencil eraser in length.

After six weeks, the eyes were dark spots. External ears were beginning to form, and faces were newly sensitive. Limbs were elongating, and fingers started to grow out. Torsos were straightening, helping the bodies to achieve lengths of about half an inch. By seven weeks, arms contained bones and elbows, and toes, eyelids, and ears were becoming more recognizable. The embryos, now three fourths of an inch long, exhibited spontaneous movement. During the eighth week, eyelids started to close, neck formation began, and the shapes of the heads rounded. The palms of hands were sensitive to touch. Skeletons began the slow and ongoing process of calcification.

At the completion of nine weeks, the growing and developing individuals had attained the status of fetuses. They were all of two inches from the crowns of their heads to the bases of their bottoms. The next week, they had fingernails, and their faces were undeniably human. Nerve cells known in adults to be necessary for consciousness now resided in their brains. Excluding their legs, they were two-and-a-half inches long. On achieving three months of age, both were somewhat responsive, possibly conscious, and very much what those of common sense called babies, regardless of medical definition.

From this point forward, each baby would continue to grow and develop. Separately, they floated together, each a diminutive astronaut tethered to an umbilical cord within the fluid-filled capsule of its womb. At approximately nine months, they were born at exactly the same time on the same day in their respective cities. The baby boy weighed eight pounds and measured twenty-two inches from head to heel, and the girl came out at seven pounds, two ounces, and twenty inches.

A distraught mother in Kansas City screamed, and subsequent genetic testing would reveal the cause of the problem. After a few days of uncertainty, the boy was essentially treated as a foundling. He was given a name by an otherwise uninvolved bureaucrat, sent to an orphanage, and put up for adoption. More time elapsed, during which extensive checks of the clinical records enabled the identification of the other couple involved, but they also were unwilling to burden themselves with the results of the mistake. On the advice of their attorneys, both sets of half-parents sued the fertility clinic in which he had been conceived. His appearance made him virtually unadoptable. Somewhere on the face of this planet, there existed at least one exceptional couple willing to raise such a son, but they could not be identified or located in this instance. From the orphanage he would enter into foster care.

With governmental assistance, the young mother in Saint Louis had received pre-natal care and, after ignoring most of her obstetrician’s advice, had delivered in the assigned hospital. Understanding that having a child would bring eligibility for increased benefits from the state, she had no definite plans other than keeping her baby and continuing to receive checks from the government. Chemically embattled in the womb, the baby girl would continue to face hardship and neglect outside of it. As she matured, her state of affairs would deteriorate into one of deliberate abuse.

Two lives, resonating with all the excitement and potential of uncertainty, were newly underway. The milestones of early childhood – smiles, first steps and words, the recognition of familiar faces – would go largely unnoticed and unencouraged by adults responsible for the care of these little ones. But someone removed from the cities in which they were born was paying attention. Asleep in an armchair after a hard day of work, a man of forty-three saw each of them in a dream. Disturbed by a sense of dread, he shook himself awake. He tried to convince himself that the source of his agitation was not real, but their faces remained in his conscience. They were to appear to him repeatedly.

From then on, there was no real rest for the dreamer. His dreams continued, often several times a week. In alternating sequence, serial flashes displayed the progress of two tragic plots, the characters being rendered more familiar with each round of unconscious vision. Every unsettling reverie left the impression that it had immediately followed the previous episode, and in this way the conscious periods of his life seemed to shrink. The effect worsened until he was reluctant to go to bed at night, and he had trouble concentrating when at work.

Such were the intellectual demands and abstract nature of his career that the incidents, however mystifying, did not strike him as unusual. That which was undesirable was not incomprehensible as to its occurrence, but this understanding did not lessen the difficulty. The unwanted revelations were acutely unpleasant, and they awakened in him a sense of responsibility which he did not know how to fulfill. Somehow, he knew that what he was seeing was actually happening to real people. He was an unwilling witness who could not intervene, and so the unsettling consequences of these revelations persisted throughout his waking moments.

“Make it stop,” he would often whisper when rising after yet another night of troubled sleep.

His supplications were without apparent effect. The dreams were unrelenting, and they grew progressively more terrible. Finally, they ceased as abruptly as they had begun. There was no gradual lessening of their frequency, no easing of their intensity. After roughly twenty-two years, they were simply gone, leaving a sort of vacuum in the mental space once occupied by their oppressive companionship. For the next three years, the memory of them would linger in the midst of an eerie calm without peace.

Alias Adam (Chapter 2)

Chapter 2 – Entanglement

Underlying the events which drove the conception and early development of the embryos in question was a reality that would have been described as bizarre and counterintuitive had anyone been aware of it. To satisfy current trends in western culture, an effort at explanation can be tried within the realm of physics. Quantum mechanics is a theory which attempts to describe the behavior of exceedingly small particles of matter and energy. Things so minute are not subject to the same laws as macroscopic objects. They are postulated to exhibit superposition, the ability to occupy several states or realities at once. This theory has been used to explain the wave-particle duality of light and other forms of electromagnetic energy. Photons of light can be thought of as waves with characteristic wavelengths corresponding to the colors of the spectrum or as packets or particles of energy. A photon may exist as either or as both at once.

Decoherence is the loss of superposition. This allegedly occurs when small particles such as photons are observed and measured by experimental manipulation. The particles are “pushed” by deliberate disturbance into one state to the exclusion of another. Once this happens, they have been positioned by the observational method or instrument being used. In the example of light, a photon is perceived by the observer as having the properties of either a particle or a wave.

When disturbances occur in just the right ways, two particles may become entangled. It is as though some mysterious force connects them even if they are separated by great distances. In this seemingly bizarre relationship, a change imposed on either particle will be mirrored by a change imposed on the other. If the reader can make one more counterintuitive stretch, there is another complication. The fact that entanglement will occur later means in essence that it has occurred now, and this causes decoherence. Entanglement in the future is retroactive into the present. Entanglement in the present is retroactive into the past.

Superposition, entanglement, and decoherence apply to particles of miniscule size, but here a philosophical question emerges. Might they also apply to things of no size at all, things which are not physical? It is difficult for many intellectuals to accept the existence of anything other than matter, energy, and the forces which govern their operation. But what if such things – beneath matter, energy, and force – actually do exist and are responsible for what our senses and instruments can detect? Might something on the order of quantum mechanics apply to these as well, and might every member of our species harbor such components?

The creation of two human embryos, of two human souls, had been marked by disturbances: those caused by a combination of technology and error for one and those caused by substance abuse for the other. Social and physical disturbances would follow. Entanglement had been established, and decoherence was in progress. One could argue that these two individuals might have been anything or that they were already being assigned to the definite fates they would choose for themselves. In sovereign choices yet to be made, the trajectories of their lives were destined to cross. Two quantum souls were now attached by an incomprehensible bond, and the paths ahead of them would be marked by violence and trauma.