but her eyes trapped the sea historical romance / mystery
“James, please,” Her hand catches his wrist as he turns to leave and for a moment he is caught in all of the emotions of the world - he can feel the love in his chest swell to a point of pain before it boils over into misery, the agony of seeing the tears on her tender face, and the regret already that lingers in his core. “James.” She says his name not as a title, but as if it’s the last thing holding her and he can’t stand it. “I can’t do this without you. Please.” Her voice cracks and he can’t turn away from her now.
Instead, he turns to her and captures her face in his hands. Every time they kiss there is no such thing as time. Every time they kiss his eyes close and he sees the sun framed behind her golden hair and the way she looked in that moment. He remembers her hitched breathing as she tore through her dresses and eased her corsets from her body, nearly collapsing down onto him. He sees her tender tears and her eyes -- god, he sees her eyes everywhere.
He can’t linger in this moment. “Annalise,” He breathes her name against her lips, a dagger that digs into his heart, “I can’t. You know I can’t.” Her hands touch him as if she could just grab the right piece of him and he would be anchored here to her forever, but she has touched his soul and he knows that there is no other shore to return to but her. “Please, you can, you can… I need you, James. I can’t do this,” She is begging and it’s too much. He can’t kiss her again, so his arms wrap around her and he holds her against his chest.
She trembles like a frightened animal and he kisses her hair.
“Close your eyes, Annalise,” He whispers as his arms unfold from around her, “Close your eyes. Remember what I taught you.” He’s let go of her but his mouth is by her ear and she can feel his breath on her neck, “Remember the stars. They’re our stars, right? I can’t get lost if I follow our stars. I’ll come home. I promise.” He cups her face again, because he wants to remember the way her cheeks feel against his hands. She feels soft, almost too tender to touch with his calloused and rough palms. “They’re our stars. They’ll bring me home.”
She paints them in her head, and it kills him as he releases her face. He doesn’t give her a chance to grab him again because now if he sees her cry, he won’t be able to leave. If he feels her pull him in again she will be the rip current that makes him forever lost at sea. She isn’t the sea -- she is the ground he kisses when he’s been tossed in the swells.
She stays at the top of the hill as he runs from her, runs from everything his life should have been and everything he wanted to be. He runs, because she’s safer this way. It’s only once he’s pushed his boat out past the breaking waves and started to paddle hard against them that he looks back. From this distance, he couldn’t see her face and the way the tears made her porcelain seem polished. He couldn’t see the seas trapped in her eyes and the way she looked at him as if he were the vast endless horizon. He saw her as she was - a girl whose heart was breaking, shoulders slumped as the breeze gently tossed her summer dress. He saw his lighthouse.
It was the last time he saw her alive.
The East India Trading Company was known throughout the known world as easily the top suppliers of spices, goods, and occasionally even slaves to the Colonies. A close second had swiftly become Whitley Trading Company, founded by John Whitley and his wife Angeline. It was a shame, a true shame, that John Whitley had never fathered a son, but instead a blessing was given in the form of an angel.
From his failing marriage, John had produced a daughter that was easily the treasure of his life - golden hair that fell to her waist in gentle curls, large blue eyes, and porcelain skin. She was as tender a flower as she had appeared, all due to good raising he would tell anyone that cared to listen, and the most expensive item he’d ever sold.
He stood at the Proposal Party as the head of the company, his wine glass in hand and his fine robes draped casually across his shoulders.
“Ladies! Gentlemen! I would like to propose a toast! Today we gather to honor the merger of Whitley Trading Company and Asby Goods. From Asby Goods, my Trading Company will receive 4 ships in fine condition and the crew to go with them. As a sign of our good faith and my belief that this is a very upstanding man, I have agreed,” He turned now, offering out an arm for his daughter to step forth. For this occasion, her father had dressed in her finest dress, her corsets cinched tight and her cheeks rosy, “To allow him the honor of taking my daughter’s hand in marriage. A toast! To a happy marriage, and eve happier trading!”
The applause sounded like thunder. Annalise was an actor and she knew that this was her part now to smile, so she offered a tight and small twist of her lips in the upward direction and did her best to appear… Happy.
That could not be further from the truth. Though Cody Asby had earned a fortune in the trading business, he had long since been a man that would have made him seem marketable as a husband. His appearance had gone downhill in the later years, his hair greasy and brushed back against his head and his mouth vaguely smelled as if he’d been recently licking a donkey’s backside.
What a lovely future husband.
Annalise looked at him and all she saw was the years of misery that lay before her. She imagined her wedding night, with him crawling on top of her and kissing her with his mouth full of rotten teeth and touching her with his tobacco-stained hands. Her stomach rolled and her already tight chest caught. “Excuse me,” She gasped her way politely through the crowd and out the open doors, scurrying through the people talking outside. Air. She needed air.
The moment she was out of sight of the party her hands become desperate on her dresses, tugging them open as she hurried still away from them. The grass was breaking now into sandy dunes, and just ahead the rocks that lined a small lagoon. It was private enough she wouldn’t be found, and quiet enough she could listen to the water break against the beach and wish that she was pulled out to sea with the sand.
She pulled her corset loose and gasped air as she jumped onto the rocks. Slid was likely more accurate, as her footing became loose and finally gave way. She had no time to grab the grass before she felt the world tilt and her go with it, heading surely for a surprise dip into the water. A quick yelp escaped her before she realized that she wasn’t wet, though she had landed on something… Surprising.
Her hands uncovered her face slow, wide eyes meeting the equally surprised ones of a man. There was a moment in which they both stared, incredulous at the other and for a moment she felt something flutter. He stared at her with an intensity she had never felt before and his eyes… they reminded her of tea freshly brewed, or even chocolate that she was sometimes allowed to eat, but he looked at her in a way that made her stomach roll anew. She was gasping still too hard to thank him, so he spoke instead.
“I’m more used to women gasping after I’ve taken their clothes off.” It slid from his mouth charmingly, and his grin was wicked as the devil, but she was too shocked to register it. Her gasping for air turned to gasping at his audacity and there was no time to think - only reaction.
She slapped him.
There was no time for her to register her shock, no time for anything as she dove out of his arms, hitching her dress up high enough that it wouldn’t get but so wet as she splashed her way back to shore. He stood in the waters up to his knees still, net abandoned at his side as he watched this gasping loon run away from him. His cheek stung. But even running from him she was easily the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
He watched her as she hit the sand finally and ran just past the rocks, only then turning back to look at him. Both of them were struck by the other. Only she had a party to return to.
He couldn’t let her just leave, but he didn’t have the elegance to get a woman like her to return. He offered the only thing he had - ”I’m James, by the way!”
She’d stopped again, hesitating though she knew that she shouldn’t. Her father was waiting. Even more importantly, her fiance was waiting.
They could wait… For just a second.
She hadn’t the slightest idea how long she had been sitting here, but her tea was cold. The cup still lay cradled in her hands gently as if it were a bird, bits of leaves still drifting slow across the surface. Typically, she would have put cream in her milk but there was something… Soothing about the color of black tea.
Her eyes closed a for a moment she wasn’t thinking about the tea. She was thinking of the last glimpse she’d had of him. Knee-deep in water with his black breeches rolled up to his thighs and nets forgotten in the water, he’d stood there watching her as she made a grand escape back to the life of restricted breathing and even more restricted words, her cheeks red with shame as she laced her corsets proper again.
He lingered in her mind’s eye even when her eyes opened. How soothing could tea be when it reminded her of him? How could she find solace in her place of peace when what was typically her favorite view became the image of him? She had loved this window since she was a child, as it had the perfect view of the docks and the wide expanse of the sea. On good days, she liked to watch the sails as the wind took them and imagined that they were clouds taking men away into another land. Today, she wondered if he was on one of the ships leaving port.
It was crazy, true insanity, for her to think of trying to find him. What, even, would she say if she did?
To love is to be insane.
She knew this in her soul even as she smoothed her skirts and left her home, her tea abandoned in the windowsill. Annalise had a different tea in her mind that she wanted to see.
She was almost sure that she would find that he had left days ago, or that he had been a piece of her imagination. She expected that he wouldn’t even remember her. She didn’t expect to see him seated at the end of the docks, breeches rolled up once again beyond his knees with his feet in the cool, lapping waves. He didn’t even turn to look at her as she approached, her heels announcing her presence to the man.
He spoke first.
“I didn’t think I’d see you again.” He commented, a light jest in his voice as he swirled a bit of water around his leg. “Come, join me. Annalise, was it?” He patted the spot next to him and kept his eyes out at the sea. Like all sailors, he never quite felt easy on land. The sea called him in ways that he could never accurately described but as she lowered herself down onto the docks next to him, he wasn’t so sure that he wanted to be away from here.
He watched her from the corner of his eye as she lifted her skirts and set her heels aside, her dainty feet dipping hesitantly into the water. For spring, it was delightfully cool compared to the already quite warm air.
“I came to apologize.” She stated after a moment, “It was very untoward of me to strike you.” He laughed, because it was possibly the silliest thing he’d heard someone apologize for. “I deserved it, twice over.” He admitted, offering her a wink. “I’d do it again any day.”
Her heart was racing in her chest and she found her cheeks growing hot from his flirtatious personality, but she couldn’t help to crack a smile at him. “Thank you then, I suppose.” She offered, following his gaze to look at where the sky met the sea. Her father had told her stories that the sky and sea were lovers that kissed on every horizon. It had made her smile as a child and she couldn’t resist the urge for her lips to curve slightly upward. She wished for the days of when her father used to believe in love and romance, had told her stories of princesses and dragons. She was old enough to know those were just stories, but she always hoped the love was true enough to be reality.
There is an oddly comfortable silence between them, and she has the urge to reach over to take his hand. Instead, she breaks the silence.
“What’s your story, sailor?”
The light smile on his face hesitates, but he doesn’t let it falter too much. It turns into a harder and more grim one and she can see that he is fighting with what to say for a moment. She wants to take the question back, but he speaks before she has the chance to find words.
“I was raised by the sea. It was always meant to be, you know? My mother passed birthing me on a trip to the new world and my father… The old bastard didn’t have the heart to raise anything more than the mast between his legs -- sorry,” He offered her an apologetic smile at his crude humor before continuing, “No one took me in, so… They all did. I didn’t have parents as much as ship mates. They taught me to tie a knot before I could tie my shoes. I took my first steps on a deck. The waves rocked me to sleep at night. I earned my keep when I was old enough to work.”
Even with how her life had become, she couldn't imagine a childhood so rough as to not have parents to lean on or a place to always call home. She had lived in luxury compared to his chaos.
“They did their best, but they were just sailors. I turned out alright, I think.”
There are no words for learning such intimate details about someone, nothing that is immediately apparent that could fix a past of hardships and labor. So instead, she watches what he doesn't say, with the comfortable way he sits next to her and the lack of stress in his face. It's only now she sees something new about him - a scar. It's small, located on his jaw and shaped like a small 'c'. Her lips curve into a small smile and she reaches out, her sudden touch making his lax shoulders go stiff as she traces the outline.
“Where'd you get this?” She asks, softly, as she traces it again. It's almost like a sliver of the moon, but all soft edges. There's a long silence, but he turns his head the other way to show a matching one on the other side. “Oh, it's awful risky business kissing mermaids.” He jokes, a mischievous smile dancing to his lips. It's infectious.
Her finger trails down his jaw slowly and she lets it trace down over his adam's apple and down to the dip in his neck, where another scar lays. It's larger than the other two, and makes the dip more prominent than most people's. She lets her finger trace around the rough edges, eyes looking up to meet his. Looking in his eyes is like drinking a cup of warm tea - they're calming and warm and make her feel full inside. “And this one?”
“Oh, pirates? Very risky.”
“Yeah... And so is this.”
It's his turn now for sudden touch, his hand reaching up to grasp her by the back of the neck, drawing her in to him tenderly as his lips find hers. He kisses her - softly, and briefly, but it's a moment that lingers and for just a brief moment there is nothing else. It's better than a mermaid's kiss. He lets her go, hand lingering on the back of her neck, eyes searching hers to try and discern her thoughts.
“You're not going to hit me again, are you?”
Off-guard and completely unprepared, the only thought she could scramble together in her suddenly spinning mind was that his lips tasted like the sea. Soft but salty, the kiss was short-lived and left her the same way he always seemed to leave her - confused and yet craving more. Her lips curved slow into a soft smile at his half-joked words.
“I won’t slap you.” She murmured soft as her hands moved up to touch the collar of his shirt. He thought for a moment she would be the one to lean in and kiss him again. Instead, her hands applied sudden pressure and he found himself yelping out in surprise, her laughter ringing in his ears as she kicked water into his face. He shook his hair from his face and spat water out, treading water as she tried to gather herself once again.
“No, please. Continue laughing.” He said dryly as she held her aching sides, attempting to stifle her laughter with her other hand.
“I-I can’t stop!” She cried softly, her eyes watering, “You look like a wet dog!”
He cracked a hint of a smile, holding it back though he wanted to chuckle. Instead, he grabbed her ankle, “A wet dog?” He yanked hard, grinning wickedly as she came down with a large splash. She rose from the depths with a look of mixed shock and quiet laughter, her hair a mess around her face. “Who looks like a dog now?” He grinned as he brushed her hair away from her face, her lips finally cracking open as she burst again into laughter.
“I… You’re a strange one, sailor.” She said finally as she caught her breath, looking down at her dress in the hip-deep water. The dress may as well be ruined and she would have to explain a lot about why she was sopping wet when she returned home, but that would be a time for excuses later. The moment was too good for her to even think about leaving and he… Well, he was a sailor stuck on shore
“What is your aim, sailor?” She asked finally, a biting question that had been nagging her from the moment they’d met. Sure, he’d been an innocent bystander of sorts to begin with but he’d been undeniably staring at her as she’d run from him. Anyone would have stared at someone that looked as utterly insane as she did, but there was… Something in those eyes that made her take pause every time she looked into them.
“Well obviously, I wanted to dip you in the sea and see if you’d look just as beautiful as the last time.” It was a smoothly-delivered flirt and it worked well enough to turn her cheeks pink, her lips pressing together.
“I’m being honest.”
“Are you, though?”
He took pause, then let out a soft sigh. “I don’t have an aim.” He admitted, closing the space between them. “I just feel drawn to you. You… You feel like a rip current but you aren’t pulling me out to sea. Anything but, actually.” He captured a bit of her hair and twirled it around his finger, “I’ve never seen anyone as lovely as you. I kind of wanted to know if you were just as beautiful on the inside.”
He’d taken her words again, but this time he knew she wouldn’t slap him. He felt compelled to try and steal another kiss, but instead he offered her his hand.
“I don’t think we can go back the way we came. Do you trust me?”
Annalise stared at his hand for a moment before looking back at the docks. They were just out of view and she knew he was right. Both of them were soaked to the bone and it would raise too many questions for them to return to shore like this.
There was a good kind of nervous pumping through her veins when she took his hand, letting him lead her through the shallows and around the ships. Just as he was an expert with nets and rope, it was obvious he knew the sea. His feet found secure holds in the sand even when waist-deep and she laughed as he tugged her through the gentle swells. The spot he took her was familiar - it was where they’d met.
The area was small and offered a tiny beach that was a mix of rocks and sand. He let go of her hand and pulled himself onto the rocks, offering it back out. She weighed more than the barrels when wet and he didn’t expect that, but it made him laugh just a bit as he hauled her up onto the flat rock he’d chosen.
He stripped out of his wet shirt and wrung it out, laying it out on the rock beside them. “Do you mind?” He asked casually as he stripped from his breeches and saw her eyes suddenly dart away, a curious note to his voice. He’d been raised around men who stripped in front of any and everyone, his head tilting as he saw just how much his nearly-naked body flustered her.
“I...I have never seen a man… Um. Nude.” She admitted, feeling compelled to keep her eyes politely averted though he showed no signs of shame as he wrung out his pants and set them aside.
“Well, it’s probably a good thing I’m not nude then.” He teased, taking a seat next to her. It was silent for a moment before he touched her chin, gently bringing her to look at him. “I’m not. See?” He gestured to his underlinens, giving her a smile.
Annalise was timid but she smiled back after a moment, staring down at her dripping dress. She moved slow to remove it, tugging it down over her body. “Hey, no, you don’t have to--”
“It’s okay.” She interrupted him before he could protest, gesturing to her own underlinens. Her dress was heavy anyways and if she wore it while it was still full of water she would never get dry. She mimiced the way he’d wrung out his clothing and set her dress out next to his outfit, sitting back down next to him.
He took this time to notice her -- truly notice her -- and the way that she was. Her body was full of curves that every man would have loved, her shoulders surprisingly sprinkled with freckles. Her skin reminded him of a doll’s from how soft it was and he wanted so desperately to touch her. Unlike him, she wasn’t covered in scars and calluses and bruises. She was wholesome and modest in ways that he wasn’t.
“So,” His eyes darted back to her face when she started speaking and he was thankful to see that she’d been staring out at the waves, “Kissing mermaids?” She asked, glancing at him with a half-smile. “I think you’re telling me tall tales, James.”
“Oh, not tall at all. Very little tales.” His hand moved to his scar on his jaw and he traced it with a finger, “I got my head caught when I was a lad. Nearly pulled my jaw off.” His hand moved to the base of his throat, “And this is a fishing accident. Stray hook nearly gave me a new hole to breathe with.”
She shook her head. “I liked the mermaid version much better.”
“Well, can’t have you thinking I kiss just everyone, now can I?”
“Hm. My father did warn me about you sailors.”
“Did he now? And what did he say?”
“Sailors are a rough bunch, you know. No place to call home besides a port. Drink like fish when they’re here and do nothing but rob pockets and swoon away young women to bed them for just a night. Everyone knows that sailors only love the sea.”
He shook his head and laughed, “That sounds half accurate.” He admitted, “But he left out we only go swimming with bow-legged women,” She shoved his shoulder and he grinned.
“Why don’t you tell me more about sailors, then?” She asked, reaching out hesitantly and letting her fingers trace slow down his arm. Goosebumps rose on his skin and he fought a shiver, his eyes moving from her soft and pale hand up to her face.
“Well…” He placed his hand over hers so it wouldn’t distract him, “We do drink. But we have a home. Our ship is our home. When we dock, there are some men that are… More lusty than others. We don’t typically steal. Or get too much more rowdy than the common man.” He paused then and his eyes moved from her face, looking out at the ocean.
She could see the way he looked at it, with a softness that was unlike anything else. His lips curled at the corners and his face was gentle and eased, removing the stress that wrinkled his forehead and made his mouth curve downward.
“Ah, but the sea…” He was quiet for a moment more, “The sea calls us more than any home. We… I stay awake some nights just to watch the stars. When you are out on the ocean there’s nothing but black and those stars... “ He sighed softly and his eyes were distant for a moment.
He came back when he felt her hand pull away.
“So sailors do only love the sea.”
His smile fell into a soft frown and he captured her hand again. “Most.”
He moved closer to her, drawing her in against his chest so that he could feel her tender body against his. She was stiff at first but melted against the warmth of his skin softly, head resting in the crook of his neck. He could feel her relax against him and she let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.
He leaned her back again and captured her cheek in his rough hand, tracing down her jaw, “Your eyes remind me of the ocean. Mid-day when there’s no waves. Just calm and blue and pristine...” He tilted her head to the side and leaned down to kiss her shoulder, “And look here.” He slid his finger across her freckled shoulders and smiled when she shivered.
“Annalise, I dare say you have constellations in your skin.” He let his hand slide all the way down her arm to take her other hand, drawing both of them in against his chest. “I think… I think if a sailor were ever to love something other than the sea… He’d probably love someone like you….”
James is the kind of man that women write lofty and flowing poems about, with his dark and thick hair and his smooth words. He was so accidentally amazing that she could scarcely believe him to be true… It didn’t make sense for him to be real when everything else was tumbling down around her. So in the face of his beautifully spoken words and his soft touch, she found words that made sense.
“James,” She whispered his name and she wished that she was instead kissing him, letting his lips touch hers instead of regret dripping from her mouth, “You...You can’t love me.” He tilted his head and pulled back.
His mouth opened and he started to say something, but she stopped him and regretfully offered out her left hand, which was adorned with an extravagant ring. Gold, with a rather large emerald on it. “I… I’m engaged.”
“You seem… Enthused.” He did draw back, but he didn’t let go of her completely, letting his fingers trace the curve of her shoulder gently. “Tell me about him.” He was being polite enough to ask, but she was once again falling short as she realized… She knew hardly anything of him.
“Mister Asby is a wealthy man of trade. He’s been wed before and his ex-wife was a lovely woman that could cook, clean, and keep house as well as any other woman. My father has told me he will make a fine husband and I a fine wife.”
James nodded for a moment, then shook his head. “Arranged, then. And you know nothing of him.” He shook his head again and slid his hand down her arm, taking her hand. “I didn’t tell you that I could love your.. Betrothed. I said I could love you.” He stroked the back of her hand with his thumb, “I’d at least like the chance to try.”
He could see her hesitating still, but she smiled at him softly. “I… I’d like that, James.” She said, letting her fingers lace with his slowly. His other arm wrapped around her shoulders and pulled her close against him. Again, she leaned into him softly and he let out a soft sigh as her arms wrapped slow and tender. They grew hard, as if she feared he would run if she didn’t hold him with all of her might.
Soft and hardly there, he placed a series of gentle kisses on the top of her head in her hair.
Her shoulders shook and he realized that her face had turned wet against him.
“Annalise,” He tilted her head back and watched a tear slip free of her eyes, which she wiped away with shame. “Annalise, what’s there to cry for?”
She sniffed back her tears and shook her head, “It’s… It’s nothing.” He wiped what she missed and nestled her back against him.
“I’m okay with talking about nothing.” He said as she trembled against him again, crying in silence as she was too embarrassed to let him see her shame.
It took a few moments, but she did pull away, wiping at her wet cheeks until she had gathered herself enough to speak. “You’re right. I hardly know Mister Asby. I...I can’t stand him. But I can’t refuse.” He rubbed her back softly while she spoke, his casual smile turning to concern, “He’s a good businessman… But a terrible person. I… I fled from my own engagement party… And that is how I met you. I wasn’t joyous… I panicked. I realized I couldn’t do it and I just… I ran away. I don’t know what else to do.”
He nodded sympathetically, sighing as he turned his attention towards the sea. The day was already waning towards night and he knew that if they stayed much beyond nightfall that questions would be asked. “Then run away. Every chance you get. I can’t promise you a lifetime… But I can promise you tomorrow. And the day after. I promise to you next week, and the one to follow.”
His ship wasn’t set to leave for another few weeks and that would give him time to think things through properly, to learn more about her and to… To just be with her. He’d already become so comfortable with her so fast but there were still things he didn’t know, like her favorite flower and the way she enjoyed her morning tea… If she enjoyed tea at all… He wanted to remember every detail and whisper it to himself at night, to remember the way her skin feels against his hand.
“I’d like that.” Her sniffling had quieted and she had wiped away the rest of her tears, leaving her cheeks pink and her eyes still slightly red.
“So… We meet every chance we get. In private.” He tugged her close and kissed her shoulder, “You show me the stars,” He placed more kisses from her shoulder to her neck, following the constellations in her freckles, “And I’ll show you the sea.” He grinned at his own cleverness, enjoying her light laugh as his beard tickled her neck.
“I don’t think I could ever say no to that offer.”
Twenty-one days is the length of time it takes to break or make a habit. It had been twenty-one days and she was a habit that he hoped he never had to break. Their time together was brief but every moment he got with her was pressed into the recesses of his mind.
He knew that she liked roses - wild, not tended to. Her favorite color was purple, mostly because of the shade of thunder clouds when they were full of lightning. He knew she liked tea in the afternoons after she’d snacked and that she licked her spoon religiously after putting cream in her tea.
In turn, she had learned that his full name was James Patrick Thomas and that he was ticklish on his sides. He enjoyed the feeling of her hands through his hair. He looked best in white but she loved his brown shirts on him just as much. He enjoyed beer and the one time he’d been around her after drinking he’d fallen asleep in her arms.
Twenty-one days and the spot on the rocks had become ‘their spot’.
At midday the sun hit it just right to make it perfect to doze off. He lay with his body flat and his left arm bent at just the elbow so that it curled around her head and allowed him to play in her hair. Annalise had come to comfortable against his side, one arm around his middle and her head resting on his shoulder.
Their spot was perfect, not just because it was private away from everything else and the troubles of the world. It was where they both went to escape and where her eyes felt comfortable enough to close. He lifted his arm and slowly traced his finger down the center of her face, letting his fingertip linger on her lips before stopping on her chin.
“What do you think of the Florida country?” He asked suddenly, watching her stir from her half-asleep state.
“Florida?” Her eyes blinked up at him and he smiled, touching the tip of her nose again gently.
“Florida.” He smoothed down her eyebrows with the tip of his finger as he let the idea he’d been working on in his mind, “I’ve heard stories of the slaves making it to the Florida country just on foot… If they can make it with nothing but the clothes on their back and a direction… I think we can.” He saw the spot between her eyebrows wrinkle as she brought them together and he put his finger on her lips to stop her from protesting.
“Just think about it. Me and you on a beach. In the sun, like today. But it will be every day. Nothing to hide from. We could walk down the streets hand in hand… I can kiss you anytime… “ He leaned in and placed a soft one on her lips, trying to sway her over in the way that he knew would work on her.
She sighs softly against his lips, “James,” His name is poetry to her by now and she could whisper it all day. “Do you really think we could make it to the Florida country?” There was hope in her voice and it swelled in his chest. He cupped her cheek and kissed her lips, not brief this time but hard and like he meant it.
Annalise kissed him tender, always, as if her kisses were secrets that had to be whispered on his lips. He craved more of her. He pushed himself onto his side and cupped her as he kissed her again and again, pressing into her hands as she brought him in to her.
When he stopped they were both breathless, her eyes searching his as he smiled down at her. “Do I think we could make it?” He laughed, tracing her shoulders softly. “I have our stars to guide me. I could make it anywhere.” He whispered, his lips brushing hers.
There were tears in her eyes as he kissed her this time, and when she cried he knew it wasn’t from a point of sadness. Her hands slid under his shirt and pulled it free from his breeches, sliding beneath it to move up his sides. He tensed but she tugged the shirt off of him, bringing him back down to her lips.
Her kissing had changed suddenly and drastically from soft to needy and he followed suit, letting his hands push her skirts up. James pulled away from her lips and kissed instead her cheeks, following her jaw and down her neck to her shoulders, his rough hands moving slow up her inner thighs. She tilted her head to the side and let out a soft noise as her hands tugged his breeches, her body arching up against him.
“[James,” His name is soft from her lips and he kisses it away from her mouth, letting her press her secrets into him as she pulls his underlinens away from his body. They’d held back before in moments of passion, had toed a line but had never crossed it.
She’d seen him naked, had felt the way his body was against her own but she hadn’t been ready for him, had been stuck in her own reservations. Reservations be damned, she needed him now in ways she couldn’t say. Instead, she used her body to say it, her hips pressing up against him and her hands stroking him slowly.
He moved against her tenderly, kissing her neck as he spread her legs slowly. He could feel himself positioned against her and it would have been easy to press himself into her folds, but he hesitated, pausing in his kissing to stare down at her. She was lovely, every bit as tender as the flowers that she loved so dearly.
“Are you sure that this is what you want? … That I am what you want?” He asked, watching her eyes move over his face slowly. Her fingers trace his face, moving over his thick eyebrows and down his jaw slowly, tracing the scar on his jaw and the one at the base of his neck.
“You’re everything that I want. Today. Tomorrow. Next week. The wee--” He stopped her with a kiss, his lips pressing against hers and silencing her words and the soft moan as he presses himself inside of her.
His stomach tenses as he feels her body grow tight around him, a soft noise coming from in her throat. She was a virgin, and he knew, so he moved slow. He peppers her face with kisses as he works his hips on her gently, enjoying the feel of her warmth around him as he groans gently, feeling her hips slowly rise up to meet his.
Her temporary pain turns into soft sighs as the pain of lost innocence subsides and is left instead with desire. Annalise presses up against him, her arms wrapping around him as she closes her eyes and relishes the feel of him. The slow and tender lovemaking takes on a faster pace and he grabs her hips, groaning against her neck as he thrusts his cock into her again and again. Her hands grasp the bare skin of his back and she gasps as she feels her orgasm coming closer, her lips pressing into his skin as she moans and bucks up against him.
Her walls grasp his cock tight and he lets out a soft grunt as he presses himself into her one more time, elbows resting on the warm rock as he feels his seed spill into her. Her lips are soft like butterfly wings against his skin now as they both lay breathless, his body rolling off of her and eyes closing as he holds her against his side.
James rests an arm over his eyes and he sighs, breathing heavy as he strokes her hair again just as before.
She rolls back onto his chest as he pulls his breeches back up, leaving his shirt untucked. Her hands slides beneath it to rub his stomach slowly, tickling it so gently with her fingertips.
“Reik… Why don’t you love the stars?” She loves this view of him from below with her head in his lap, watching the way his expressions change as his fingers trace over he face. They are sitting on the hill that they have long identified as “their spot” and it is her favorite because it offers a beautiful view free of both trees and buildings.
“The stars?” He echoes her words back because he doesn’t have an answer for her immediately, his fingers tracing her lips. He can feel her laugh against his skin and it brings a smile to his lips.
“Well… They’re boring. I’ve traveled through them and seen them from all angles and they’re still… Just stars. They’re just these eternal, distant lights in the sky made of burning gas and—“
“Reik,” She whines his name, interrupting him as she pulls his fingers away from her lips and holds them over her heart instead, “You’re looking at them all wrong, my love.” He tilts his head, curious, as she smiles up at him smugly. It isn’t often that she can outsmart him, but when it comes to emotional intelligence and sentiment she was far superior. “They’re not just stars. They’re stories. They’re… They’re home. Look,” She points up at the sky above them, tracing the outline of her favorite constellation, “Orion the Hunter. Did they teach you that one where you’re from?”
He laughs and shakes his head. Of all the things his home planet had taught him, stories that held no scientific value were not one of them. His people were far different in the lack of emotion and sentiment that humans had, but learning from her had been infinitely more engaging than any classroom at home.
“We don’t talk about the stars like that where I’m from. You know this.” He doesn’t reference his home often but when he does, it’s to remind her that he doesn’t have the knowledge she does. In all of the time he’s spent on Earth, he’d found something more important to focus on than assimilation and information gathering. He had a mission at one point but everything had changed when she’d swept into his life.
“Great. You should learn. Okay, so, that one is Orion the Hunter and this one here… That’s Ursa Major – The Big Dipper.” While she talks she presses his palm down against her chest, feeling her heartbeat through her skin. His eyes close and he takes a moment enjoying the rhythm of it and the strength, her body so small but yet her heart so powerful.
When his eyes open, he is smiling at her, realizing she has stopped talking about the constellations. He looks over her face, tracing her tender jaw line and the neat curls of her hair. Her skin, in most places, is a dark chocolate and in others stark white patches. Humans have named the condition vitiligo but for him it is part of what has made her the most beautiful human he’s laid eyes on. She’s ethereal and he couldn’t love her more.
“There’s only one collection of stars that I want to know more about.” She sighs but takes the bait, quirking a brow at him slowly.
“Andromeda, you know that you’re my galaxy.” He leans down and kisses her tenderly, enjoying the feel of her lips against his. It lingers and for a moment he doesn’t care about anything – he has a mission that he is supposed to be reporting in on, work he has to do, experiments to run… But ah, her fingers run through his hair and he can feel how tender and frail she is. Even if she’s everything to him, she’s still a human and he has come to learn just how fragile humans truly can be.
“That’s the dumbest thing to ever come out of your smart mouth.”
The screen winked black and he stared at it for a long time, expression somber as he returned again to the present. He wished he could reach out and touch her again, to feel her skin or smell her hair, but instead he was left with only memories.
His memories are ghosts and his heart has become haunted with them. They wake him in the middle of the night while he rests and his body is left feeling… Guilt. Yes, the overarching theme of it all is guilt. He made the choice to love her and made the choice to have a family with her. His choices were what led to her untimely demise and he could feel it to his core that he may as well have killed her himself. Perhaps she would have died easier that way.
He shook his head to clear that line of thinking away from himself, his body trembling as he ran his hands down his face, letting out a long and shuddering sigh. His heart was heavy now but his work was so close to being done.
Reik forces himself to turn away from the memories of the past towards his current prison. The walls of the room are bare of decorations and the room itself is only large enough to contain himself and a metal medical table. Previously, he’d been allowed a small rolling table that had held tools and instruments for him to fine tune his work, but the process was all but done. The surgeries were complete and the medications had done their part. It was time for the final trial before his work could be presented and the expectation hung heavy in the air.
The man closed his eyes for a long moment, gathering himself as he drug his hands down over his face. He’d seen himself earlier in the reflection on his screen and he looked haggard - tired eyes, slumped shoulders, his dark hair a tousled mess, and his clothes wrinkled from wear. This experiment had drained the soul from him, he felt, and his body looked the part.
Reik pressed the small button on his recording device as he walked around the long metal table his subject lay on, fingers moving over the skin that neatly met and merged with the metal of his bionic parts. The man’s breathing is steady and his body is bare save for a thin white sheet tossed over his lower half, giving even the unaware the right to privacy.
“Subject’s vitals are steady and have been such since the animation process was complete. The union zones show sign of fresh healing and have not rejected the non-human materials. Signs of infection noted yesterday are gone and,” He paused as he lifted the eyelids and checked the pupil reaction, “Pupillary reaction has returned. It should be noted that the subject has not been allowed to wake due to information transfer from database. Subject experienced mild seizures during the last transfer...” His voice trailed off as he sighed.
“Subject shows signs of successful union of mechanics and man. The memory base is unable to be tested before the subject is awake. Due to memories implanted, subject is likely to be disoriented and may react violently. To contain incidents, subject has been restrained fully until fully aware testing is completed.”
He leaned over the head of the table, his fingers reaching to the spot at the back of the subject’s neck to find the small internal switch that could be manipulated through the skin. His breath hung in his throat for a moment before he applied enough pressure for it to slowly push into the “engaged” mode.
“Subject awareness process has been started. No change in vitals,” His eyes are locked on the screen that tells him everything he needs to know about the subject on the table. In his peripheral vision, he’s watching the man on the table for signs of animation and hoping for a peaceful transition.
“Heart rate rising,” He noted for the recording, eyes moving away from the read outs instead to watch the man’s face change. His expression had been placid if not totally serene, but now his eyelids were pressed shut hard enough to cause creases, his forehead starting to form lines as the breathing picked up. A low groan rose from the subject’s chest, a haunting but positive sign.
Reik watched in silence as the groan dissipated again into a heavy silence, anxiety forming a knot in the man’s chest as he watched the subject work slowly against the restraints. First, his legs attempted at tugging upward and his arms strained against the cuffs on his wrists, his back arching and chest pressing up against the strap that was secured across it. The hands on either side of him balled into slow fists and his toes curled, every muscle working and every piece of machinery moving as if it were flesh. His neck strained as she struggled to lift his head from the table, another low and terrified groan rising from the back of the man’s throat.
“Easy,” Reik breathed the word to the subject, eyes flicking up to the heart rate on the monitor, “Heart race is accelerating. The subject is testing restraint system… Can you hear me? You need to open your eyes and wake up.” A sense of urgency has leaked into his voice now, his excitement making his careful hold on his emotions loose.
He pressed a hand over the subject’s chest, able to feel his pounding heart just beneath it and nearly able to sense the fear that must be going through him. The man was coming awake in an unknown room, restrained to a table, nude, and possibly in pain. The situation was volatile, but the experiment demanded this process.
“Open your eyes.” He urged, his voice taking on a hint of anxiety despite the fact he was attempting to mask his emotions for the recording.
The subject’s breath hitched in suddenly and harshly as his chest bucked up against the restraints. His eyelids fluttered and jaw clenching before his eyes shot open, scanning the room wildly for something that made sense to his confused and addled mind. Sensory overload was one hell of a way for him to wake up, his heart pounding against his chest as he struggled to make sense of the room that he was in. The man’s mind still rolled with memories, his ears ringing as the distant sound of screams played through his mind like muffled ghosts.
“Subject is conscious. Visibly attempting to connect final memories and current input from his surroundings.” He leaned over the man, his hands cupping on either side of his face and cutting out his peripheral view, “End recording.” A soft beep from his chest informed him that it had cut off and he leaned his face directly over the man.
“Look at me. Orion, I need you to look at me.” The man’s breathing was so harsh that it was hard to tell if he heard at first, his eyes moving but distant as he experienced… Well, Reik wasn’t sure what he was experiencing. He tried his best to soothe the man beneath him, his thumbs brushing soft against the man’s coarse hair, dark hair. Reik closed his eyes and for a moment distant memories danced before his eyes again of his life and he too held breath with Orion as his subject tried to calm himself down.
His breath finally came in as if he were a man coming up from drowning, body going lax on the table as he lay trembling, staring up at Reik with tears in his eyes. The man’s lips moved wordlessly, choking on his own saliva for a moment before he coughed as Reik finally breathed a sigh of relief..
“I don’t understand.” He said finally, his voice ripe with fear as he tried to match the room to his last memory. He remembered pain. He remembered choking on blood and coughing it into his hands and… Screaming. So many screaming that it didn’t even sound human anymore, “I… I don’t understand.”
“I know. I know. You’re safe. Look at me. You’re safe.”
“No…. You don’t understand… I died, Dad.”
They had taken everything from him already, but still they hungered for more. There was a process that had to be followed for them to determine that he had paid the price for his crimes and it had not been started for him yet. The process of his people was every bit as cold and emotionless as everything else they had, based on information rather than emotion. Instead of relying on others to agree to determine his guilt, they used a program that could assess and determine guilt with near complete accuracy.
The system had been in place for centuries before he had become one of the accused and now was the first time he felt a cold stab of fear in his gut. His actions had been just, he felt, but he didn’t know if they would be considered to be logical. Reik paced the room now as he waited for his escorts to retrieve him for his trial.
As always when he wasn’t immediately pre-occupied on work, his mind drifted back to Orion. His son had been a success on the first animation, a nearly flawless creation and a perfect example of what cold, hard science could produce. From corpse to creation, his son was alive again, walking and talking. His memories had remained despite the brain having been stored for weeks in stasis… But there was something that was off about him.
He caught it in glimpses and small glances at times, watching his son as he interacted with his other creations, the man taller than nearly all of them. Something in the way he carried himself, the stance of his shoulders, or perhaps just the way he spoke… It haunted him to be so unsure of the man he’d made twice now, his mouth forming a soft frown as he mulled over his own memories.
Reik used to be awake with thoughts on whether his Orion would come back, and now he lay awake at night wondering if he had done the right thing to bring Orion back. The humans talked often about the horrible happenings to those who brought back the dead… But Orion had not been human to begin with, surely he wouldn’t be susceptible to such nonsense as what humans had gone through.
He wasn’t given time to further muse over the situation, the soft sound of the door opening on the far wall announcing the presence of his escorts. The two were uniform in their openly displayed apathy, their faces blank of emotion and… Truly anything that would have made them unique. They had no identifying marks to set them apart from each other save for different eye colors, one a startling green and the other a brown so deep it appeared back.
“It’s time, then?” He didn’t need to ask the question, but he did in a small chance to stall the inevitable, his hands wiping on his constantly disheveled clothing. He could taste the fear in his mouth, a sharp tangy flavor that nearly made him want to spit. Instead, he swallowed his fear and held himself tall, his face turning neutral as he approached the escorts.
“Present your arms.” The green eyed one spoke, presenting Reik with a device that looked rather innocuous in nature, just large enough to wrap around his two wrists. He lifted his arms together, his wrists up and forearms touching as he had seen done with others that had gone through this process. The device felt cool against his skin as it was brought up from below and made to wrap around his wrists, molding to his flesh for a long moment. The contact made his skin burst in goosebumps, his hands clenching as the device radiated a gentle golden light against his skin, falling free of his skin and retracting into itself neatly.
In its place was a soft golden light that wrapped around his wrists, a thin beam connecting his two wrists if he pulled them apart. His eyes moved over it slowly, moving his wrists apart slowly to watch the soft golden beam remain intact despite the distance.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
The one with dark eyes commented quietly as the escorts flanked his sides, each one gripping his upper arm to guide him away from the room.
“What happens when the connection is broken?” He asked, musing on how much distance he would have to put between his wrists before the connection would break, his hands turning over to inspect the strange non-restraint.
“Immediate death. My suggestion is to resist an urge to stretch.”
Reik’s lips tugged into a wry smile at the dry and emotionless way the other man spoke, the desire to laugh tugging at him though he knew that would go over just as well as anything else. Instead, he lapsed into silence and observation. These were his people but time away from them had given him a far different perspective of them. He’d grown up much like them - distant and emotionally void, his purpose in life to be education and the pursuit of knowledge - and it dawned on them that the humanity he was accused of was far too true.
His time on Earth had taught him things that a book couldn’t and given him a world where he could pursue both love and learning at the same time. He’d felt passion for something other than the next step in his experimentation and felt… Alive, truly alive than he ever had in his years before. If this was what humanity had to offer him, how could it have been a bad thing?
While he mused on his own humanity that had been birthed on the planet of humans, he let his eyes take in the surroundings. Like most of the ships of their kind, decorations were nonexistent and the layout was rather simple and easy to navigate. They were not creatures of elegance but creatures of logic and intelligence and that showed in the no nonsense approach to interior design. His room was the last and only room at the end of a long hallway that brought them out into a large galley area, the ceiling becoming more of a dome instead of an arch now for the circular room.
The room was empty save for one thing -- the pod. The lid of the pod was opened and he was dimly reminded of human caskets - it looked like one with the plush interior and body-shaped design, though the inside of it was made from a soft gel material. He’d heard of the pods before but had never seen one in person, much less been put inside of it.
The escorts brought him to the very edge of it before stopping, their firm grips releasing his arm in unison. His arms fell lax in front of him and he stared down into the soft yellow goo that would decide his fate in utter silence.
“You are to enter the pod and lay flat. The pod will close around you. You remain inside of your pod until your judgement has been reached. Your sentence will be displayed on the pod once it has been determined. You will be incapable of telling untruths. You will be incapable of refusing to answer a question.”
The man’s voice and affect was flat as he spoke, neither of them wavering in their set stares on Reik.
“It’s a date, then.” He murmured, his voice resigned as he shuffled to turn his back to the pod. His rear sunk down into the goo slowly as he sat himself into it, the material surprisingly lacking in temperature and sensation that he could feel. His feet swung over the edge and he settled them down into the feet of the pod, his body laying down on its side as he curled up in a fetal position.
There was no sensation as the goo engulfed him, his eyes shutting as the yellow started to seep up over his cheek. The lid closed in silence over him as he sunk fully in the materials, his mind drifting as the last of the material pressed around him. It was only then that he could feel it, slightly warm around him and pressing in on all sides, lacking of the wet sensation he had imagined it would feel.
Again, he found himself unable to focus on figuring out the sensations happening to his body and his mind drifting against his will, his body fighting against it as he tried for just a few more moments to stay awake. There was a moment where he lingered in limbo, his mind half-alert and feeling the warmth spread through him before it finally took its final hold, his thoughts drifting and everything in his body turning lax.
As he relaxed, the breath he’d been holding let out, the air bubbles bursting nearly immediately as the goo pressed into his body, invading him as his consciousness drifted away from the situation. It filled his lungs, his throat, plugged his mouth and nose to ensure he was completely engulfed in the material. It flowed through him and he drifted away now, his mind drifting to where the goo wanted him to be.
For him, everything was black at first, as if he were falling asleep and incapable of dreaming. His sense of time was skewed, seconds seeming to drag by as he struggled through the murk in his thoughts. It was all clouded and thick, like a morning fog on earth.
He saw himself, then, a man alone and standing tall in the fog. In third person, he watched himself wander through the fog, his head swiveling as he tried to make sense. He followed behind his own figure curiously, watching the man as he found his way to a single chair that sat in the fog. The dream Reik sat on the chair, his hands folding in his lap as he waited.
Waited? He wasn’t sure why he thought that the man was waiting for something other than the feeling of expectation and the way that the other version of himself staring expectantly into the distance. He approached behind himself and aligned his vision with where his other’s eyes were locked. It was nothing but darkness and swirling fog, the area devoid of everything else. He let out an aggravated sigh before settling himself behind his duplicate.
In this place, time passed differently if it passed at all, Reik’s sense of it certainly seeming off. There was no light save for the non-source that seemed to make the accused visible to themselves. He tapped his own arm to keep a rhythm and attempt to keep track of time, though even that seemed to be faltering. Though the rhythm was one tap her second, he found that the fog seemed to enjoy altering his sense of time, swirling around his tapping fingers. He could feel phantom fingers tapping their own rhythm against his skin, and times where sensation disappeared entirely.
The fog was to take away all distractions from everything else, he assumed, and make the accused focus only on the trial at hand. He thought back to what the escort had told him - he would be unable to tell untruths and unable to refuse to answer questions. He circled himself, coming to stand in front of the other Reik.
“Your eyes are green.” He commented, a blatant lie from his mouth. The other remained unphased both by the man stepping into his line of view and the comment. His lips tugged down into a frown as he lifted one of his hands, bringing it directly in front of the other man’s face. Swiftly, his fingers balled into a fist that thrust through the man’s head, which turned out to be every bit as solid as the fog that lazily twisted around them.
So, Reik himself could lie, but perhaps it was the dream version of him which wouldn’t. A projection, perhaps? He mused over it, trying to figure out the situation and put it together. It was then that the Reik reacted, a soft sigh of relief coming from his lips. He turned on his heels to find that another figure was striding out of the shadows towards another chair that had appeared directly across from the existing one.
A woman approached slowly through the fog, her clothes visible first before herself. She was tall and thin, her body wrapped in an all white suit in stark contrast to the eternal black that lingered around them. Her hair was so blond that it looked to be spun from silver, hanging past her shoulders to her waist. Her face was slim with a small and pointed nose, her eyes shocking in their lack of… Anything. There was no pupil or iris, simply blank white eyes that gave no indication of sight.
She could see, that much he could tell from the way she approached and seated herself in the chair, but her face was difficult to read. Her expression was painfully neutral, her lip a solemn line as her iris-less eyes stared into the dream Reik. In response, he found himself circling back around to behind his other self, watching the situation unfold.
“You are accused of abandoning your mission. You are accused of allowing your own to die. You are accused of illegal reproduction. You are accused of spreading information determined to be private.” There was no question or inflection in her voice, her tone nearly robotic with its lack of emotion, unsettling even for himself. “First charge - abandoning your mission. Please state your case.”
“Thirty years ago, I was given information on a race that had become insidious to other planets. Starting from their own planet of Earth, they have moved from settlement to settlement and depleted the resources on each new planet. The creatures were studied from my base but our specimens were flawed. They had become contaminated from their travels and had reproduced with other species. We were working with incomplete materials.”
“I needed complete materials to study them properly. I volunteered to go to their home planet, the nest in which they all were flowing from. I was largely unnoticed on their planet on my arrival. Their planet itself is dying from their very existence on it. The ozone layer was damaged and their climate nearly inhospitable. Overpopulation has become a major threat to the planet from their strong desire to reproduce and their desire to keep every person alive despite logic. They are based highly on emotions and experiences. They seek out illogical thrills in order to dose themselves with naturally occurring adrenaline, which provides them with excitement and exhilaration. They are sturdy creatures that can survive great trauma. The same cannot be said for the other creatures on their planet. They have caused mass extinction and eradicated millions of species of plants.”
“As a whole, I agreed with the mission I was given. They needed to be eliminated. I took samples as privately as I could - they proved to be savage creatures when they knew one of their own was missing and discovery was not an option. They are rather easy to kill one-on-one, but studies showed that they are extremely difficult to remove when in groups.”
“The creatures have a taste for war and they seem to enjoy the violence. Their society revolves around it, makes sport of it, shows of it… It’s almost impressive how they hunger for it.”
Watching himself describe the humans in such blatant terms was almost gut wrenching, his affect every bit as flat as the woman’s, though there was the hint of a frown on his face. He felt a pang of stress in his chest, his hands placing on his dream state self’s shoulders, falling through it at the last second. His fingers curled in frustration as he fought the urge to lash out, his breathing heavy as he struggled to keep himself calm.
This was his trial but he truly wasn’t able to speak in his own defense. There was nothing that he could do - consciously do, at least - that would help his case. It was… Facts. It was nothing but facts, as with everything else that his people believed in. His teeth ground together as he struggled with his upset and his anger, pacing behind himself as his dream self continued.
“I was able to go largely unnoticed on the planet for years, but with the social nature of humans, it was noticed that I was constantly alone. I made the decision to immerse further into their behaviors - it would help me to better understand and to track them. I participated in their dating rituals and was able to learn about their practices.”
Reik shook his head as the memories of his first failed attempts at dating played once again through his mind. There had been so much to learn about humans that he’d forgotten how truly complex they were with all of their social and emotional needs. It had taken months for him to have a successful ‘date’, much less one that was satisfactory.
“Their practices are largely emotional. There’s no logic in the way they choose a mate, only… Feeling. They are largely passionate about their beliefs and securing someone that was not seeking to mate for life was… Difficult.
Of all the things to evade him, sleep was perhaps the worst of them all. The nightly struggle was always the same - painful optimism followed by restless realizations that dived down into the crushing pain of exhaustion. Tonight, of all nights, Vic Campbell knew that he needed rest. It was Day Three of the week of endless awareness and his mind was starting to get fuzzy. He’d found himself drifting at work, his pen tapping in a rhythm just to keep his muscles moving.
His eyes shut and he twisted in his sheets,the blankets curling around him as he struggled to find a position that would ease his weary body into any form of rest that he could find. As a child his mother had taught him the key to a relaxed mind was a relaxed body. He forced himself to focus not on how the inside of his eyelids felt like they were full of grit or that he felt like he’d recently been a turtle playing chicken with a Mack truck. He focused on relaxing every piece of himself.
Slow breath in. He forced his feet to relax. Slow breath out. He felt it moving up to his ankles and calves. Slow breath in. He found his thighs easing into the mattress, a slow breath out, and his stomach and back soon followed. Slow breath in and his back eased slowly down into bed. The last breath out and he felt his head fall into his pillow at last, the tension in his shoulders falling as he let himself go entirely limp.
This wasn’t sleep, but this was the next best thing. His mind drifted somewhere between conscious and unconscious, vaguely aware of the distant ticking of his wall clock but nothing enough to bring him back to the surface. When he ‘slept’ like this, he thought of floating in waters. It was a calming sensation somewhere between floating and sinking, his body feeling light and heavy at the same time. He could hear himself breathing, hear the rustle of his skin in the sheets.
Until the moment he couldn’t hear anything at all. The float became a complete stasis, the only sound in the world being the pounding in his chest. His eyelids struggled, then failed, to open. This didn’t feel like floating anymore. This felt like drowning.
Panic rose like a bird into flight in his chest and he fought against it as his body struggled against the heaviness that weighed him down. He could feel every muscle in his being yank and tug with no actual movement in the bed. This wasn’t just a fight anymore, this was war. He’d never been in a place where he couldn’t come back, he’d always been in control and had always been able to pull himself back up. He felt helpless, vulnerable as his pounding heart bruised itself against the inside of his ribs. He could hear himself breathing sharp and ragged, that sound only distant as his limp body remained useless against the sheets.
“Relax.” A softly whispered command rang through his head with a voice he couldn’t recognize but felt inexplicably compelled to obey. His breath caught in his throat and his struggle wheezed out of his body with his released breath. The world around him turned quiet and his eyes moved behind his eyelids. Questions bit behind his lips as he felt a weight settle onto his bed beside him, a brush of something soft tickling across the skin on the opposite side.
“You’ve struggled for a long time, haven’t you little one?” The voice was tender, motherly almost in nature with the love that rang through it. He didn’t know the voice, but it didn’t terrify him. Instead, it calmed him. The bed creaked as the owner of the voice leaned over him, a hand as soft as satin tracing his face slowly. “I have loved you since before you were born. I’ve waited so long for this moment…”
He felt the fingers slide to his forehead and the nail dug into the skin sending a sharp pain through from the forehead to the back of his head. The nail moved slow and he felt every centimeter of it, a low groan coming from deep within him as it came to a soft halt that left him panting and dewed in a fresh sweat.
“I know, I’m sorry.”
His eyelids fluttered but didn’t open, the pain diminishing and instead leaving a dull ache that was just beneath the skin. He could feel the line she’d made in his forehead with her nail, felt his heartbeat pulsing beneath the skin with each throb of it. He felt her press her hand down over it now, her palm soothing against it and the tips of her fingers in his hair. A wet trickle slid down his forehead and for a moment he thought himself bleeding. The moment ended when he felt the cut split slowly, a blur of an image starting to appear in his mind.
It started as shadows, slowly forming into lines he realized to be that of her palm. The ache in his forehead turned to a fierce burn as the seam split fully, a sensation of cold air on something wet making his stomach roll. The hand moved away from his forehead now and he recognized his own ceiling, his vision blurry and out of focus. He felt his stomach flop again as his eyelids squeezed shut, his forehead aching as this vision continued behind closed eyes.
“Relax,” The voice chided him gently as he felt his panic start to creep back into him, his skin crawling with his anxiety. The eye rolled in his forehead and he felt it move beyond his control, weeping tears gently down the bridge of his nose and onto his cheeks.
“Your time has come to See. The threads of fate have been woven and this is your path.” Even with his Eye open, he couldn’t see the person the voice was coming from, only his empty room and the faint outline of a misshapen body, “You are Seeing as things were, as they are, and as they will be.” She informed him softly, the outline moving away from him, “Be careful on your path. There hasn’t been a Child yet that has gone untested and he will try to lead you away from what is meant to be.”
He could feel himself slowly gaining control over the seemingly aimless movements of the newly gained Eye, forcing it to focus on the figure. He could see a tall and slender feminine body on his bed still, an outline behind her own hard to distinguish. His questions gnawed at him on the inside and he ached to ask, but his body refused to obey.
The weight on the bed lifted and he watched her step away from him, the outlines behind her moving. He followed them as they peeled away from her, finally distinguishing themselves as wings. His breath hitched in his throat.
“See into yourself. Your future is within you.”
The air left the room in a rush of wings, the figure gone as quickly as she’d appeared, leaving him with his thoughts. See into himself? The Eye rolled and the battle to move started fresh again.
Even with her gone, his limbs ignored the messages he sent to move, twitch, kick, something. He was still locked in his stasis, his clock ticking the seconds away as he tried to work through the paralysis that he fought so aimlessly against. With no way to properly see the clock, he couldn’t tell how long it was he fought internally before he finally gave up, a short huff of air escaping him in his frustration.
‘See into yourself.’ Her words played through his mind once again, a reminder that she had given him a task to complete. Instead of focusing on moving his body, he focused on moving his Eye, moving it left and right to test his control.
His breath sucked back into his chest when it rolled itself entirely back into his head, the visions in his mind becoming murky and dark for a moment. When sight returned, he was an observer of his own body, watching his own face as everything else was too blurry or him to fully see. He watched as his face turned serious and everything in him went stiff as he leapt, jumping out and falling abruptly to the ground.
The moment lingered as he waited for what happened next but the other version of himself didn’t move. When the other him moved it seemed to be in slow motion, the body revealing a pool of blood and more coming from a wound that had appeared on his chest near the ribs. Confusion melted to horror as he watched his own hand come up to his forehead, clutching over where he knew the Third Eye to be. The hand came away bloody and he watched himself go limp before he -- he sat up in the bed.
Every nerve ending in his body felt like it was tingling with electricity, his body covered in sweat. His hands moved swiftly to his chest, feeling for the bullet wound that wasn’t there. He searched his forehead to find smooth skin and more sweat, his hair touching his fingertips. If there had truly been anyone in the room, there was no evidence. A shaking hand moved to touch the spot where the Angel had been, the sheets the same as they’d been when he’d laid down.
“Shit.” He breathed the word to himself, leaning forward over his knees as he tried to collect himself. Everything had seemed so real that he couldn’t quite convince himself it hadn’t happened. Only one way to find out.
Vic shoved the sheets aside and pulled his weak limbs out of bed, stumbling through his dark room to find the bathroom, fumbling on the wall until he found the light switch. The sudden change from darkness was enough to hurt his already grainy eyes, the man leaning in close to squint into his reflection in the mirror. For a moment the image of himself on the ground bleeding flashed in front of his eyes, but that moment was gone. Instead, he saw only himself: tired and unshaved, his eyes ringed from exhausted and nearly bloodshot.
Hesitantly so, his fingers ran over the wrinkles in his forehead, tugging and pulling at the skin to see if it would split. There was a dull ache in the center where the Eye had been, but nothing to actually prove what had just happened actually happened. Damn. A dream couldn’t have possibly been that vivid, and he couldn’t explain the sensations he’d felt.
Even more than what he’d felt, he couldn’t explain what he’d seen. The vision that she’d guided him to had been an obvious message. Things that were, things that are, and things that will be. He hadn’t previously had that happen, it wasn’t currently happening, so it left him with one conclusion that sunk his heart in his belly. It was to be. Had she truly come to visit just to let him know he’d be dying soon? Or was there more that he’d missed when focusing on himself?
He ran his fingers through his hair and turned on the faucet, the silence in his room too much for his spinning mind. Every time he closed his eyes he could see the images play again on repeat against his will, the feeling of watching himself go down again and again reminding him of everything she’d told him. This was his fate. If she was an Angel and from the God that he’d know his entire life, why would He put this on his shoulders?
He splashed his face with water to help gain his composure and his answers were in the few words she’d spoken - there wasn’t a child yet that hadn’t been tested. Even without being a regular church-goer he remembered the story of Job, a man who loved God more than any other man but was tested more than any other child of God. He wouldn’t put anything on someone’s shoulders that they couldn’t carry… But why this?
He hated colloquial sayings but it fit the situation - God works in mysterious ways. Every step in his life that he’d taken, every hardship that he’d fought through, everything led to the point that he was approached by an Angel, the first person in… Who knew how long? It had to mean something. It had to mean something bad was coming. The thought sent shivers down his spine and goosebumps rippled on his skin, every hair raising as he tried to think of what could possibly be so awful in his small town that an Angel would be sent down...
End times surely wouldn’t start in a place as quaint as this… But who was he to know what God’s plan was? The thought was grim, enough to make anyone feel the weight of the situation, much less feel crushed under it. Oddly enough, he felt the opposite of that. The weight was a familiar one on his shoulders, a confidence starting to form in his spine even as his fatigued body ached for rest. The situation was bad, but God had chosen him.
The moment was ruined by his cell phone ringing in the bedroom, his hand wiping the remains of the water off his face as he made his way back through the dark to his bedside. Work, his human work, never ceased. He picked the phone from his bedside table and sighed resignedly. God’s work would have to wait at least for a little while. God wasn’t the only one that was depending on him to make the right choices.
“This is Vic.” His eyes closed as he leaned his head into the phone, listening as his coworker started in on the newest emergency that happened any time his foot passed over the threshold of the building to leave. “I… It’s,” He squinted at the clock on the wall, “It’s three in the morning… And you called me because you can’t handle someone smoking in the building?” He asked, his voice a mix of annoyed and tired, “You’re a supervisor. If you were supervising, this wouldn’t be happening. You need to go back and supervise. We have a policy for a reason.” He ended the call and hoped sarcastically to himself that God’s work wouldn’t require half as many training sessions as actual work did.
Vic let himself ease back into his bed, sprawling himself out as he let his body settle into the mattress. For the first time in quite a long time, he had no trouble falling asleep.
* * *
Just as the sun brought a new day, when Vic woke in the morning he felt like a new man. For the first time in possibly weeks, he felt refreshed as he slid his way out of bed and made his way to perform his morning routine, looking in the mirror to see someone that he didn’t fully recognize. He looked almost entirely different without the dark circles under his eyes, his glance moving from the rejuvenated face in the mirror to his forehead.
The events of the night before were becoming more like a dream than a reality, but he could feel the change that had been left within him even now. Purpose swelled his chest and brought pep into his step that he didn’t have on any given morning, namely before he’d had his morning coffee. It was a welcome change to feel ready to approach whatever the day had in store for him, which was always a never-ending barrage of… Well, everything.
Since he’d taken the position of Director of Nursing two years ago he’d come to quickly learn key things about the people that he worked with. Though people typically joined his line of work due to their love of giving and their compassionate souls, he dealt daily with the consistent problem of either people doing too much, or not enough to be considered working. The matters were only made worse with the drama that forever spread through his hospital like wildfire, cliques forming and breaking apart like bands of feral animals. He thought a lot about the rules of nature when he came to work, mostly of the pack mentality when his nurses decided they felt he was being unfair with scheduling.
If Vic were to be any animal in nature, he’d have been a lion. This wasn’t to say that he was prideful - no, a male lion wasn’t the one to do the hunting or bring home the food, but he had a very important duty: to protect those in his pride. His nurses did the hands-on work and he would gladly acknowledge that any day. He did the side of it that they never saw, fielding complaints from family members of patients and speaking with investigators any time someone even whispered the hint of suspected abuse. He handled their schedules and eased the petty drama that sparked between them daily, even mediated between the nurse supervisors and the nurses themselves. He was the mediator and leader, setting the way with his quiet and (usually) calm demeanor.
At any given time his hospital was on the verge of a complete meltdown from the state of near constant emergencies that seemed to pop up, ranging from staffing issues to personal issues that were always just a half-step behind anything that ever happened. It was Vic’s job to keep everyone collected and organized. He struggled most days with working his way through it, but hadn’t had a day yet that he couldn’t muscle his way through eventually.
This morning felt no different as he stepped into the hospital, the beige floors a welcome but dreaded sight all at the same time. His ritual was the same every day - set his keys down in his office off to the right of the employee’s entrance, then head on to the nurse’s station. As per the usual, he found them circled around and speaking in lowered voices.
“Good morning,” He broke the whispers with a positive attitude, taking a swig from his coffee as he strolled around the wide U-shaped desk to take a look at notes, “How is everyone doing this morning?” He asked as he flipped through the reports that had been written up on the shifts he’d been out for.
“Well, you heard about Ms. Mays, right?” One of the more seasoned girls, Mallory, spoke up first, “She was up and down all night last night. We’ve spoken with her doctor and he’s just not sure if she’s responding to her antibiotic or if we’ll have to get a steroid with it or not. Her urine catch this morning looked more clear than the last ones but you know that it’s more than just having blood in the urine for UTI… Her intake is still low, she’s not drinking much and we can’t get her to eat, but the family says that’s pretty normal for her.”
Vic nodded in silent agreement, reading over the comments that had been left on a notepad instead of put on his desk.
“Right, well, who told Lita that she could have the day off?” He didn’t look up at them, watching them in his peripheral as they shuffled and glanced at each other, each hoping that their pagers would go off so they could have an excuse to leave the station. With no answer from them other than their sudden change in demeanor, one of his brows rose just a bit in irritation, “Did Lita call in? Or speak with any of you?” He asked, glancing around the nursing station to see if perhaps he was just missing her, “It is her shift, you guys know.” Even with the subtle pressure, he couldn’t get them to do anything more than stare around at the suddenly very interesting tile floor.
He had to remind himself that he was being watched a bit closer by a higher power and keep himself in check. He felt his anger bubble then sizzle itself out, his hand palming the note that had been left for him. He grabbed his coffee back up and took another swig while daydreaming idly of it being spiked, “Just keep me updated on Mays.”
This was one of those times he needed to walk away from the workers, just to get some perspective on things and cool himself down. He couldn’t blame them entirely, but he hated when they tried to do things without informing him. It felt like he was taking two steps forward then one step back when they approved for someone to be off or switched with them without keeping him in the loop. He was the one making the schedule and overall, he would be the one that would be taking the fall if something - God forbid - went wrong on that particular shift. Still, they were only human and just trying to look out for their friend.
Instead of letting everything get to him, he took time in his office for a moment and caught up on his emails. Those were an issue in and of themselves most of the time as the hospital was run by a party that rarely ever stepped foot in the building. They were all about maximum inefficiency (it seemed) and seemed to be better geared towards government work than health care management. Still, he had to deal with them and had to keep up with everything they wanted and they required of him. The e-mails didn’t help ease his mind anymore than talking with the staff had. Each email seemed to contradict the one from the previous person, each sent from a different department and he just couldn’t take it. He shut the laptop and instead sipped his coffee some more.
Why was it that everything had to be chaotic before 10 in the morning? Couldn’t the universe just wait until he’d calmly sat down and absorbed his caffeine into his body before it all imploded? He set his elbows on his desk and rest his temples in his palms, his fingertips rubbing at the edges of his hair as he sat and sighed. Despite his best effortsnb, his eyes shut and het allowed himself a moment of peace. He let himself listen to the bustle of the hospital, the distant beeping of heart monitors and the chatter of nurses and family members. He found a soothing familiarity in all of it. Even with the chaos that he experienced here daily, this was a place of healing.
His breath paused in his chest as he felt the seam on his forehead open softly, soft light making his third eye blink and squint. He could feel it as it opened and dripped onto his laptop. He moved his coffee in response, keeping his eyes shut as the Eye glanced around his office. The dream hadn’t been a dream. The distant sounds of the hospital around him soothed and now he could See. It was his office, but it wasn’t as it was now. A girl sat in one of the two chairs across from his desk, her dress somewhere between work appropriate and funeral appropriate.
She was possibly the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen with brown eyes so dark they looked black and curly hair that fell to her waist, her curves accented by the dress that she wore. He knew he was supposed to be looking for something, everything in his body told him that he needed to be Seeing something about her… But all he could see was her. Everything about her from the plush full curves of her lips to her lightly freckled cheeks made him feel compelled to talk to her. He wanted to know everything about her, know everything that she’d ever thought and to take care of her. It was an inexplicable attraction unlike anything he’d ever felt before.
His Eye shut promptly as a knock rapped at the door, jolting his eyes open and his head up from his palms. Vic wiped away the tears that had dropped from the Eye onto his desk and hastily checked his forehead. With the closure, the seam had disappeared entirely, no sign of the Eye anywhere on him.
“Door’s open,” He called finally, opening the laptop to make it seem as if he had been hard at work, reading and responding to emails this entire time. He was relieved that it wasn’t a nurse coming with an urgent emergency, a relieved smile coming to his lips.
“Hey, boss man.” Casey swung her way through the door, almost still hanging onto the knob as she placed herself in the seat across from him and promptly crossed one leg over the other. Even in her office, Casey couldn’t ever just sit down. “What’s going with ya this morning?” She asked her own coffee in hand as she sipped it much less slowly than he did.
“Well,” He shuffled papers on his desk before looking up at her, hesitant to make eye contact because of the vision that he’d just experienced. He was doubting himself at the moment, unsure on what she could see, if any evidence at all remained on his face, “We’ve got nurses that it’s okay to agree on a new schedule without letting me or their supervisors know. I’m sure you’ve heard about that already.”
“Oh, sure,” She nodded and already was taking another long swig from her coffee cup, her eyes glinting with quiet mirth as she stared at him. More accurately, she stared at his hair. Since day one, Casey had made it known that she was forever a fan of his hair. “You know that I hear everything that they talk about, too. I just hear about it from, like, down the hallway. I have to be listening with my door open because no one actually comes into my office to give me the tea.”
“You’re HR.” He commented, “They aren’t going to willingly give each other up like that to be investigated.” Casey shrugged and tapped her fingers on the cup she cradled.
“Yeah, speaking of that,” She twisted in her seat a little bit, never comfortable in just one position for a while, “We staff a hospital, yeah?” Again, he could see the very thinly veiled mirth in her eyes and the laughter she was just barely holding back. He made the conscious choice to bite the bait on her hook.
“Last I checked we did.”
“Wow. So, you mean we aren’t a strip club?”
“Hmm. Nope, not last I saw.”
“Huh. Could you let my latest interviewee know that?” She snickered to herself, “I mean… Wow. Just, uh,” She shook her head and twisted in the chair again, folding her legs on themselves until she was sitting curled up in the chair neatly, “I mean, if this was a club she’d definitely have been hired. I just don’t get people.”
Vic laughed, shaking his head. Casey was always the more outspoken and judgemental of the two, but they usually saw the same issues the same ways and agreed with the staffing. If there was ever anyone he could count on to be there for him to help with staff it was her, even if she was at times overly sarcastic and dry with her humor. They worked well together as a team, Vic more experienced with how a hospital worked and Casey eager to learn whatever he could teach her.
“I don’t get them either.” He said finally, rubbing his forehead as he sighed and grabbed a small stack of papers. “First floor is always a mess. I’ve got to go check on peds.”
“I’ll come with!” Casey hopped out of the chair and followed him out of the office, following her usual of being a step or so behind him. “You look off today. Something up?” She asked from behind him and he could feel her eyes on the back of his head. Or maybe the back of his hair, he was never sure which, he usually had more pressing issues at hand to check on.
“Uh, no,” He used drinking coffee as a way to avoid her question for a bit longer, thinking on how to word what he had been through the night previously in a way that she would understand. Instead, he went with something that was a little bit easier for her to understand, “I’m just frustrated, man. I’ve got these supervisors who are paid to supervise and they don’t do their job properly. I get calls all through the night and I’m just… I’m tired.” The last two words were said almost as an exhale as he pushed open the door to the stairs.
“Yeah, that sounds about right.” She murmured behind him, following him as he led the way up towards the pediatrics unit.
“It’s a lot sometimes. They all say that they’re just taking a few minutes but they forget that… They’re all calling me. And all of them are taking just a few minutes, then I have to call other people and I just feel like I never really get away from here. I leave the building but there’s never any… Time completely away from here. If I ever want to really be away I’ll have to totally throw my phone away somewhere.”
“... Yeah, that.” He chuckled at her comment and pushed open the door to the second floor, nodding his head in greeting someone as he held the door for her to come through.
“I don’t know how you do it.” She shook her head and followed him out onto the floor as he made his way to the nurse’s desk on the pediatric unit. He shifted from the more casual version of himself to more business, his face turning hard as he rounded around the desk and started reading through the notes that were left on top.
“We all do what we have to do.” He commented as he flipped through the notes on one of the younger patients they had. He hated working in the pediatric unit, not because of anything that the patients did but because of the nature of the patients themselves. It hurt to see the most innocent of the world to be suffering, even worse when he felt like it was a fault of another person who knew better.
His mouth pressed into a thin line and he picked up the chart whose notes he was reading, turning from the empty nurse’s station to flag down one of the lead nurses.
“I want to have this patient on more checks. There’s something going on here.” He flipped open through the notes and pointed out a portion of the note. “Do you see the comments here about bruising?” He could feel lingering just outside of the conversation, her eyebrows curved in concern.
The nurse glanced from the notes to Vic before back to the notes.
“I mean, he’s a kid. Kids get bruises.”
“Yeah, kids get bruises. And I’m saying to watch this kid with these bruises. Just get the paperwork together and write it up so your nurses know what to look for. We need to stay ahead of this and see if we need to reach out to the police.” Irritation leaked into his voice at the casual way that the nurse brushed off the injuries on the child, his dark eyes staring at her as she walked off.
He shook his head and forced himself to walk away, moving now with his human shadow towards the infant part of the pediatric unit. Casey was quiet behind him for a long time and he thought for a bit that she would branch off and return to her office to work on what she was required to do.
“What do you think is going on?” Her voice piped up from behind him, the hesitance noted in her voice as she stayed behind him to avoid reading his facial expressions.
His face was grim as he paused at the locked door to the delivery unit.
“I’d rather not say just yet. It’s just a hunch right now. I don’t like the placement of the bruises and I’m just… I may have only been the Director of Nursing for two years but I’ve been in this line of work for over ten years. I know what I’m looking at and there’s just too many red flags going on here.” He admitted to her softly as they rounded the last corner.
These patients were the hardest. These were the ones that kept him up at night worrying about how his nurses were doing and if they were going to be on time to relieve each other. He couldn’t stand the thought of them being left with ill trained nurses or those that lacked compassion. It took a special type of person to take care of the truly vulnerable in the world and his staff team on this section of the floor was picked very carefully.
He stopped to stare at the kids that sat in their bassinets, most sleeping peacefully and some staring up at the world that was new, confusing, and bright to them. His heart felt soft. These patients needed the most care and attention, needed someone to hold them and love them and take care of them. As if on cue, one of the nurses rounded the corner, a younger nurse that had been perhaps one of the most quiet he’d ever had.
She was tender as she leaned into the bassinet and cradled one of the babies up against herself, rocking it softly. He could see that she was talking to the child, her eyes showing the look he wished that every nurse could have for their patients. He felt a dull ache in his forehead.
The Eye peeked open and caught bits of light and color. He closed his eyes and felt him slow his breathing down, hand gripping his coffee just a bit tighter as he felt it completely open. He didn’t See the future this time, nor was he looking at the past. Instead, he saw the nurse as she was, a woman that was caught up and in love with her job because she got to work with patients she adored the most.
It wasn’t her face that he was stuck on now, but the soft tender wings that were behind her back, outlined behind her much as the Angel’s wings had been. He felt himself let out a soft sigh of relief, the stress in his chest easing as his hand eased up on his coffee.
The Eye closed and his eyes opened, moving from the nurse to Casey, who’d wandered over in her own world, smiling down at one of the kids.
“It took a long time to get us here.” He commented to her, breaking her out of her trance and stopping her from making the annoying clicking noises she’d started to make at the babies through the glass. “And they’re not cats, you know.” He added with a laugh.
“I know they’re not… But you have to admit, I got them looking at me Vic.” She stuck her tongue out at him and motioned him away from the glass to let the nurses work on soothing the babies, drinking the remains of her coffee before tossing her cup away.
“I don’t think anyone really knows how much time you put into fixing this place. You kept us busy in Human Resources for quite a bit. I’m still backlogged on writing up staffing reports for the home office.” She commented to him after a moment, giving him a wry smile. “You put me through my paces when I got here. I don’t think I’ve ever done so many interviews before. But you’re right. The hard work paid off.”
He smiled to himself.
“It wasn’t just me.”
“I mean yeah, you didn’t do everything on your own but you were the one behind it. You’ve always just had this… I don’t know. Gut sense about people. You could always tell if someone was going to work out or not. You were almost psychic with knowing whether someone would come to work or whether we’d hear every excuse in the book - in order, might I add.”
“I’ve been in the business a while.”
“Does it physically hurt you to take credit for the work you do?” She teased back at him as the two approached the stairwell again, heading back down to the first floor where both of their offices were.
“I take credit for what I do.” He said, “But with how long I’ve been in the business, I’m just doing what I know how to do. If I didn’t know how to do it by now… Well, there would have to be something pretty wrong with me.”
“I still think there’s something wrong with you.”
“What gave it away?”
“For starters, we’re friends.”
“That’s pretty harsh on yourself. You aren’t that bad.” She shrugged but he couldn’t see it, pushing the door open at the bottom of the stairs and holding it for her, “You gotta be more positive.”
“I’m one hundred percent positive that you have never had a bad hair day.” She commented with a smirk, her eyes ticking up to his hair then back to his face, “It’s just so… Curly. It’s the best.”
“So you’ve said… Every day. You’re in HR. Aren’t you the one that tells employees this kind of behavior isn’t okay?” He teased her softly, pausing in his step as he phone started to ring at his hip, “Hold on.”
“This is Vic.”
“Vic, hi, this is Maxine,” The soft, professional voice of the corporate liason was never one that he wanted to hear, “Are you busy right this moment?” He glanced at the papers in his hand and thought of everything he needed to do just today - monitoring on the bruising situation, the UTI case on first floor, yearly review for an employee, monitoring of a trainee to see if she was ready to go on her own, paperwork check, schedule creation...
“No, I’m free. What’s up?”
“Great, listen, we have someone that we have hired to come and look into some situations that have happened there in the past. She’s with an outside firm and will want to look at employee files, patient records, those kinds of things. If you could help her out as much as you can, kind of show her the ropes, that would be great.”
“Alright, when will she be here?” He glanced at his watch and gave Casey a wave as she got his attention to let him know she was wandering back to her office now to leave him be.
“She’s got to finish up some paperwork here to be able to legally view files there before she heads over so expect to see her first thing tomorrow.”
“Is there anything I need to go ahead and pull to have ready for her? Will she need an office space?” He could already picture the woman trying to use his office to work. It was barely big enough for all that he needed to do, his desk usually sprawled with papers and his incoming box typically filled to the brim with work that was never ending.
“An office space would be wonderful for her, Vic. As for getting ready, we will need you to pull some employee files for her to start reviewing. Get Casey to help you if you need to, but we’d like for her to be able to get started as soon as possible.”
“Sure. Which employees?”
“All employees that have worked in pediatrics in the past… Three months. We want the full file on all of them. I want for her to be able to know as much as possible just short of knowing their favorite color.”
He grimaced, but forced a smile onto his face because he knew that she could hear his tone through the phone.
“Sure thing. I’ll get all of that put together today and into tomor--”
“Another thing,” She cut him off without an acknowledgement to what he’d said so far, “I want for you to pull some case files on some of our patients that have been returning visitors to our hospital.”
“Okay, which patients?” He was already running a few names through his head to try and think of the problems the hospital had faced in the past few months. Unfortunately for him, there was a long list of names that ran through his mind, some of the details on the cases growing fuzzy already. Three months was a long time in terms of the hospital, the doors were always open to new patients and new patients brought new problems. Hell, just last week they were struggling with an Alzheimer’s patient that was being moved to an adult care home and drove them crazy the entire way there.
“We’ll need for you to pull files on any cases that we’ve had to investigate.”
“Sure, sure. Which level of investigation are we talking about? Just me asking the staff what happened or us opening a formal investigation into the events?”
“Just get it done, Vic. I’m sure you know what we’re looking for. Thank you.” The soft tone of the call disconnecting in his ear without so much of a chance given for him to speak up or even a polite ‘goodbye’ was more than irritating, his teeth grinding in his mouth. He could feel his own jaw working as he chewed his way through the thoughts in his head.
He knew what they were looking for. There were too many cases going on for him to pinpoint one particular problem they were looking at. Was it the affair between the nurse and the doctor that he’d had to terminate? Or was it the allegations of abuse? The misuse of medication against the doctor’s orders? There were always so many problems when he worked with the crowd that he employed. The company he worked for hired mostly new nurses, if they hired nurses at all. Most of the care was delegated to Certified Nurse Aides. He mused too much on how easy it was for them to pass through the course and still provide care while being so high they couldn’t function.
Too much, it was always too much on his plate, but as always he knew that he would pull through this. He ran his fingers through his hair and let out a short noise of irritation as his curls fell back into his vision. Precisely what he needed for today was that his hair would be uncooperative and lend him the look of someone ten years younger. It was hard to get respect when he looked less like a professional and more like an amateur hair model.
As if summoned, Casey appeared behind his elbow.
“Well hi,” She smiled at him from behind the straw of an iced coffee, but Vic didn’t have time to wonder how she survived her daily intake of caffeine, “So, what’s up?”
“We have a lot of work to do and not enough time to do it. Carol called, she wants for us to pull employee files and case files on patients that we have had an investigation on in the past three months.”
“Ooookay.” She drug out the ‘oh’ and chewed the straw, her eyes on his hair again, “Something’s fucky, yeah?” She asked, though she already knew the answer to the question.
“Well, they didn’t ask for files just to have a paper party.”
“Mmm. Yeah, typical Tuesday. Let’s throw paper everywhere. Casey didn’t spend a few hours putting files together just for us to throw them.”
“Your sarcasm is as strong as your coffee this morning.”
“Oh, good. I was hoping you’d notice.”
“I always notice. You’re about as subtle as a bull in a china shop.” She smiled behind the straw and wiggled in her spot.
“Awww, Vic. How sweet. Soo, what was the phone call about? I’m guessing from your face that it wasn’t something absolutely fantastic like free coffee for employees.”
He sighed, already feeling uneasy about everything that was to come and the implications of it.
“Well, no, it’s not good. Home office has someone coming down to run some investigations. I’ll need your help pulling employee files. We’ll have to pull every employee for the past three months. Flag any cases of people that we’ve fired or let go… I’d say just to be cautious, we should pull four months instead of just three. They’re looking for something and I can’t say what for sure but I have a good feeling it’s got to do with the bruising we’ve been seeing on some of our patients.”
Casey’s head tilted, “You mean the bruising we had to do like… Six improper lift trainings on?”
“I’ve got a feeling that it might not just be lifts. We’ve been seeing the bruising in places that were usually from a bad lift, but this morning…” He paused, chewing over his words in his head. Even though he knew Casey wouldn’t spread the word of what he’d seen and what he suspected, there was a suspicion in his chest, “I’ll have to tell you about it later. I don’t want to say anything too soon.” He finished, giving her a tight smile.
“Too early to tell.” She murmured, her own eyes distant for a moment as she chewed the end of her straw absently, “Three months of employees for a hospital like here… That’s a lot. Is there any particular floor that I should be focusing on pulling files for?”
“Right. Yeah, pediatrics mostly. Be careful and pull any other files that give you a red flag. We need to make sure that we have as much information as possible and don’t leave anyone out that could be instrumental to the investigation.”
She nodded. “I’ll get right on that.”
“Thanks, Casey. It’s gonna be a bit of a bumpy ride from here on out, I think. There’s a lot going on. More than just Human Resources kind of stuff.” His eyes pulled away from her and stared instead towards the patient area, his eyes seeming to grow darker with his concern and worry.
“Is there such a thing as calm around here?” She offered as a rebuttal, using a hand to lightly punch his shoulder, “You’ve got this, bud. If there’s anyone that can muddle through this mess, it’s you. I’ll get to workin’ on those files.”
She was gone before he could turn around to thank her again, his mind on all of the events that were turning around in his head. Was the Eye meant to help him go through this process with the employees to find out who was guilty?
It didn’t make sense given the vision that he’d seen just the night before. He refused to let it play through his mind again and haunt him in the daytime, instead turning his focus towards the pile of paperwork that he needed to tackle for the day on top of pulling information about the patients that had been through his hospital.
He was halfway through reading an incident report no one had told him existed when his phone rang on his hip. He grabbed it, put it to his ear, and kept reading as he spoke.
“This is Vic.”