Chapter 2 – Fifteen Minutes

When Killeen stepped into her favourite café, the smell of ecstasy flooded her senses. Caffeine had its own sweet scent. There were a handful of occasioners, straggling newbies, and a select few patrons that should have been paying rent for the amount of time they spent there. The faces were all familiar. All but one.

El-Creep-O sat alone in a partially shadowed corner. She couldn't make out the details of his profile, but she could tell that he was facing the outward window. In front of him on the table sat an untouched mug of cooled coffee. The lack of steam indicated a lengthy occupancy. How long had he been watching people pass? How often had she done the same? No, he wasn't a people-watcher like her. He was looking for something specific. Some feral hunger grumbled at the center of his soul like the beasts of her dreams. She turned abruptly when the barista called her by name.

"Hey, Killeen! Usual?"

Killeen nodded. "And some kind of a sandwich. Did I miss the special?"

"You just missed it by about fifteen minutes," he said apologetically.

"That's okay," she replied. "Surprise me with something nice. I need a tea for Flynn, too, please."

"Coming right up."

She shuddered when a slithering chill snaked its way up her spine and made camp at the base of her neck. She wanted to turn around to see if El-Creep-O was staring at her, but she managed to refrain.

"You okay?" the barista asked.

She gave him her best picture smile as she reached for the cappuccino and small bag. "I'm fine. Thanks. Just a little off today."

When she turned around to leave, her suspicions were confirmed. El-Creep-O was staring right at her. She left the café in a hurry and started up the street with quickened steps. It wasn't often that a complete stranger gave her the creeps, and she was having a hard time shaking it off. She fought the urge to sprint the remaining few blocks to the studio. Instead, she did the sensible thing and slowed to the pace of the crowd, which she knew would effectively camouflage her.

As she turned the last corner, she looked over her shoulder and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw nothing out of the ordinary. She wasn't being followed. The pigeon caught her attention. It was still perched on the window sill, though it was no longer hiding behind the potted plant. As if daring the bird, she narrowed her eyes in warning. The pigeon did not move, except to fluff out its chest and coo.

"Nothing will run right now."

Flynn had been right. Things were definitely off.

A hand nudged her shoulder, and every muscle in Killeen's body contracted. There was a zapping sound like static electricity where it connected.

"What a pleasant surprise," Alexander offered, ignoring her skittishness.

"Alexander." The smile was forced. "So good to see you."

He reached for her hands in greeting but found them occupied with cup and bag. She was relieved that he wouldn't be able to feel them shaking. That was the last thing she needed. If she had arrived fifteen minutes earlier, she could have avoided seeing him at all.

"How have you been?" he asked, caressing her form with a gentle glance. "You look well."

"Thank you," she responded expectedly. "So do you."

They stood there silently for a few moments. She could tell he was staring at her, while she was doing everything in her power to avoid eye contact. Standing on the sidewalk with him was a nuisance she wasn't up to the task of tolerating, but at least it had effectively distracted her from her café stranger creeps.

"Well…" his voice trailed. "It was great to see you."

She nodded and took quick steps toward the studio door, before he could do something foolish like try to schedule a follow up. While he had made her promise to stay in touch with him, she had found that promise incredibly difficult to keep. She had no desire to fall back into the past with him, and until he stepped forward into their platonic future, casual conversations would continue to be awkward. He had wanted more than she would ever be ready or willing to give him, and she'd done the right thing: the only fair thing. She wasn't the type of person to string someone along. She left that sort of thing to Flynn.

Six months had passed, nearly twice as long as the duration of their season together. She wasn't upset that things had ended. It was how things had finished that bothered her. More than regret was the embarrassment she felt over the circumstances that had led to their official breakup. Really though, their relationship had been doomed from the start. Animals were the reason. He loved them, and she hated them.

#

Like water, animals were another of Killeen's core fears. Even a curious kitten made the hairs on her neck stand on end. The problem was that Alexander was a veterinarian. As if that wasn't enough animal overload, he also spent his free time volunteering at the zoo. He had talked her into volunteering with him, thinking it would be the perfect opportunity to face her dream demons head on. If things were to progress between them the way Alexander wanted, Killeen was going to have to make some serious concessions to keep from rocking the boat.

When the dreaded day arrived, Alexander took her trembling hand, and the fear she felt temporarily subsided. For the first five minutes, everything was fine. Then, nothing was fine, and she wasn't sure that anything would ever be fine again.

They weren't at the zoo. They were standing in the center of a prison, where cells labelled 'Enclosures' held caged criminals. As the lion opened its mouth to roar, a screaming plea stormed her thoughts. The more anxious she became, the louder the noise seemed. It wasn't alone. Thousands of screams flooded together and drowned her in anxiety. Her skull felt like it might explode, a dam breaking open and pouring out its confines. Her breaths caught in her boa-constricted throat. Losing grips with reality, she floated in a sea of black until the rocking waves finally quieted the storm inside her.

Killeen woke up in the hospital to a fretful Alexander pacing the room. When he noticed that she had opened her eyes, he rushed to the bed and tried to hold her hand supportively. She withdrew from him, clasping her palms tightly together and circling her thumbs. She would offer no contact nor did she deserve any comfort. She had caused a humiliating scene at a place that he adored. She had no choice but to jump overboard before he did something foolish like give her the last life preserver.

"Before you even ask it," Killeen began. "I'm fine."

Killeen could tell by his guilt-stricken face that he was trying to blame himself for what had happened. The distance between them was eating him up. His life – the very reason for his existence – terrified her. He regretted pushing her, because he had pushed her right out of reach. He knew he was losing her, but she knew that he wouldn't let her go without coaxing.

"Okay," he said softly, the sadness in his eyes reaching across the hospital bed and wrapping its suffocating arms around her heart.

"Don't look at me that way," Killeen said in a tone as short as she hoped the conversation would be.

"Like what?" Alexander returned. "Like I'm concerned?"

She swallowed hard. He wasn't looking at her in any way but relief that she was showing signs of improvement, and he would dutifully stay with her, probably even going so far as to marry her if it came to that, but he could never truly share with Killeen his whole heart. His love would always be split in two, and she couldn't shoulder the weight of that responsibility. Confrontation was something that she avoided, despite the hefty price she paid for her silence, but her conscience couldn't justify making him pay for it, too.

She considered her next words very carefully before deciding that his unwarranted guilt was the logical target. "You knew this would happen."

His eyes flickered for a moment. "It's my fault. I never should have pushed you into it. You warned me, and I was careless with you. I'm so sorry, Killeen."

"How sorry would you be if it was the morgue I'd landed in instead of this bed?"

Her words surprised him, because they were so unlike her. She was always agreeable, always kind, and never dramatic. He didn't know how to handle her like she was.

He stumbled over his words for a few moments before throwing his hands in the air in exasperation. "What do you want from me? I'll do anything."

But he wouldn't do anything, and she knew that.

"Well, you'll just have to choose what's more important to you – me or those beasts."

It was all laid out. For a terrifying second she thought he might choose her. How would she talk her way out of that? Instead, he stared contemplatively at the floor.

"Killeen," he started, "I want to be with you but…"

That was that.

#

Killeen entered the studio to find Flynn attacking the books with waning enthusiasm. They weren't thriving, but they were definitely surviving.

"If you'd spend the like of time with brush in hand as you do refusing sales, we'd be much further in the black," Flynn advised her.

Flynn was right. Killeen was obscenely picky when it came to selling completed pieces. She wouldn't sell to just anyone. From petty threats of blacklisting to poor newspaper reviews, she held true to the temperamental artist label she'd been given. She handled sales exclusively, and Flynn let her, because she knew it was the only time Killeen stood her ground about anything.

"Peace offering," Killeen stated, as she handed Flynn her tea.

"I could stand a break. 'Tis a miracle true that could turn a nickel into a dime. Mind you, there'll be no needing to beg for baubles just yet, but you best be giving your knickers a kick into gear," Flynn suggested. "Thank you kindly for the tea."

Killeen smiled and pulled up a chair to sit with her.

"What's the fancy today?" Flynn lifted a brow as Killeen opened the bag.

"Something on a wrap," Killeen announced.

"Oh!" Flynn said excitedly. "I'll bet it's that egg white spinach wrap with feta."

Killeen really wasn't sure how Flynn maintained her pixie stature with her absolute love of food.

"Mind the spinach, though," Flynn warned. "I was picking it out me gob yesterday for a good hour solid."

Killeen took a big bite and smiled broadly.

"Shameful," Flynn complained. "Where's my cookie? The lad fancies me. There's bound to be sweets in the bottom of that bag meant for me."

Killeen reached back into the bag. Flynn was right again, per normal.

"How do you know this cookie isn't meant for me?"

Flynn laughed for a good five minutes straight.

"It's a guilt cookie because I missed the special," Killeen explained.

"Don't you have work that needs doing?"

Killeen waved the cookie in her face to distract her. It worked.

"'Tis a chat you're after then. Wouldn't take a seer to know you're coloured as white as me da finding me neckin' with the Clancy boy under our oak tree. Reilly was his name."

Killeen sighed contentedly. One of Flynn's stories was exactly what she needed to take her mind off things.

"And then he turned a burning red, and by God's grace that boy had a fire set in his trousers when me da started after him." Laughing, she added, "I've never in my life seen a lad move in such a hurry."

"Did he catch him?""

Contemplative, she said, "I can't be sure, as he didn't come around after that, but the locals rumoured he over-nighted to Dublin. If I had a gambling fancy, my wager would be that he's still hiding somewhere like a devilling leprechaun by my house, waiting for a chance to steal my kisses. I've a way with the lads, you see."

"I imagine you do," Killeen agreed. "That explains why you got the cookie, and all I got was a double dose of gross."

"There now, Dear." Flynn jutted out her lip. "What's the trouble?"

"I ran into Alexander," Killeen explained. "Well, more like he ran into me."

"Ah." Flynn nodded knowingly. "How did that fare?"

"Fine," Killeen responded unconvincingly.

"Are you feeling a wee bit of lonely, then?"

"I don't miss him if that's what you're thinking. I made the right choice for both of us. You know that."

"Well then, had you told me how informal you two are, I could have had him pining after myself," Flynn teased. "What more then? Are you cross that the cookie wasn't meant for you? You've only to share a smile as sweet as mine if you're after those treats."

Killeen narrowed her eyes, finished her sandwich, and headed toward her drawing room. Flynn had a way of getting gears set to the right speed, when she wasn't in the mood for helpfulness.

Flynn called out after her. "If you fancy changing your mind, I've a few numbers I've been hiding for rainy spells. I don't mind sharing my leftovers."

Flynn had a horrible habit of trying to ripple the waters, and honestly, Killeen was grateful for it. It was difficult to brood in the company of one so lively as Flynn. Once she started painting again, she lost track of time, every stroke seducing the clock forever forward.

Taking a short break, she considered her progression. The tints were finally beginning to transform, and she was making significant headway. While she still had several gruelling hours ahead of her, the painting was finally beginning to take shape. Each stroke brought her dream closer to the canvas, flowing like a stream of reflected blue.

As though Flynn had been listening intently for a pause in her work, Killeen heard her assistant's chair being pushed under her desk. A few seconds later, she was opening the door to the drawing room.

"My bones are worn to the brim," Flynn announced. "I'll be off unless you need something before I go."

"I just have a few more strokes to make. If you wanted to wait, I could walk with you."

"In truth, I'm in a bit of a hurry," Flynn admitted. "I've a suitor to keep waiting."

"Then, he shouldn't mind waiting a few more minutes."

Flynn laughed. "The waiting only works when the lady's close at hand. Besides, your moments in few might be the half of a night, in truth."

"Well, I can show you what I have left to finish, if that would sway you."

Killeen knew she wouldn't look at it. Once the painting had been started, Flynn avoided interruptions, and she reserved her opinions. She figured it was bad luck to interfere with an artist's flow.

"Let me guess," Flynn replied. "You'll be needing just fifteen more minutes?"

Killeen sighed. Had she started her day on time, she could have left with Flynn. Those meddlesome fifteen minutes were just as much of a pain as Flynn projected they would be. She wouldn't push her further, even though she preferred that she wait for her. It was always better to flow with the current than to try to swim against it.

"'Tis a fretful mother hen you are. You needn't worry after me. The sun shone a bit too bright this day for the Pooka to be taking me for a ride."

"The Pooka?" Killeen lifted a brow.

"Aye, a story to scare wee babes from staying out past dark, I imagine. 'Tisn't murder on its mind as of late, but many a drunken fool swear to have been taken for jollies, near dying from the speed of ride when it takes the form of the horse-like creature."

"Sounds like a good reason to wait," Killeen offered.

"Nevermind the waiting," Flynn argued. "'Tis a Pooka-free city, this one."

"Okay," Killeen conceded.

"You'd better hurry yourself," Flynn added. "Storm's coming."

"How can you tell?"

Flynn grabbed hold of a curl and pulled it straight to her waist. When she let it go, it sprung right back up to her shoulder.

"Your hair's always curly though." Killeen tilted her head to the side. "Does it spring faster when a storm's coming?"

Flynn laughed. "Nope. Not at all."

Killeen just stared at her for a minute. "Then, what does it have to do with knowing about a storm coming?"

"Not a thing."

"So, how do you know?"

"Because of the clouds eating the sun, of course."

"Lock up on your way out," Killeen mumbled.

"Aye," she agreed. "I'll do that indeed."

Killeen drew the final swipes of colour that concluded her day exactly fifteen minutes after Flynn had left the studio, just as the rain started.

"Well, you were right again, Flynn," Killeen complained.

She reached her arms high in the air, before stretching them far behind her back. Her shoulders were tired and so was her heart. Painting drained her both physically and emotionally. She yawned and contemplated crawling onto the uncomfortable entryway couch to rest while the paint dried. Flynn had made her replace the worn out one that was the perfect length for sleeping. The goal had been to reduce the overnight stay temptation, and for the most part, the change had been successful. The couch still got an occasional score, though, like when it provided an alternative to walking in a torrential downpour.

Just as she was about to set up camp for the night, something at the window caught her attention. There was a tapping, like someone was throwing pebbles against the glass. Squinting, she saw only the onset of night and nothing more beyond the stretch of surface. She assumed it was just the rain beating against it. Then, the tapping came again, but with more force than the first time. The sound grew louder as she moved toward the window, and the glass began to vibrate. She covered her ears to shield them, but it wasn't her ears that needed protecting. It was her eyes, as the pigeons that were beating themselves mercilessly against the windows burst through them, showering her in broken glass.

She fell to her knees, as the pigeons circled around her, their crippling cries reverberating in her brain like thunder. Her heart pounded out an unsteady rhythm, her breath caught in a vicious cease, and she struggled to stop the ensuing panic attack.

Focus, she willed herself. This isn't real. You've fallen asleep on the couch. This is just a dream.

Not a dream, her mind responded.

Not a dream, echoed a thousand other voices.

She gasped for air and curled herself into a ball on the floor. Broken glass dug into her arms and legs like hundreds of tiny needles. She heard the pigeons flapping overheard, the force of their movements a hurricane that pulled her hair up and away from her face.

The chatter in her brain was constant and unintelligible. She thought it might be words, but she couldn't understand what the words were. They were all mashed together and slurred – until one voice shouted louder than the rest, and they all started a cycle of repetition.

Subway. Subway. Subway.

Killeen closed her eyes as tight as she could, trying to will away the horrible hallucination she was experiencing. Her dreams were vivid, but she's never had one so real as the one she was experiencing. She'd never felt pain from them, only fear.

But, her fear didn't matter. It was the last thing on her mind when the voices changed their chorus. All at once, they began chanting her name.

Flynn. Flynn. Flynn.

Like the glass needles were loaded with adrenaline, Killeen rose to her feet and ran out of the studio and toward the subway. The pigeons stopped circling overhead and flew out the window, as quickly as they'd come.

Rain erupted from the sky in liquid fury. Killeen's feet passed through several pools of water, causing cold razors to splash up her legs. She let the pain push her forward, increasing her pace even when the subway entrance was finally in sight. The wet weight of her pants mirrored her heavy heart. The stairs seemed to multiply with every step taken. She had to find Flynn. She couldn't get there quickly enough.

They were running in opposite directions when their bodies collided. Killeen hadn't seen him rising and was lucky they both didn't go barrelling down the remainder of the stairs. His eyes met hers in an electric lashing, and there was something horrible in his gaze, before his expression changed to one she knew intimately – fear. He recognized her, but she was too overcome with worry for Flynn to consider where she had seen him before.

"Sorry," she muttered, pulling herself free from his steadying grip and continuing her descent.

The rain dripped from her sopping hair, blending with the tears that blurred her vision. When she reached the platform, she anxiously scanned the straggling passengers waiting to board. No Flynn.

There were new voices in her head, and she closed her eyes, trying to focus the hum into words, but it was all jumbled nonsense. It was when she opened her eyes again that it happened. The sound in her head exploded outward, and everything else fell silent. She followed the sound to an inlet at the edge of the platform.

The horrible buzzing became words … her words. She was shouting hysterically in a voice completely foreign to her. "Someone call an ambulance!"

Killeen knelt beside Flynn. Her skin was a ghostly white, a far cry from its usually fuchsia glory. She lay motionless in a pile of shredded clothing and blood. So much blood. A stream of red ran down the concrete path, pouring like a waterfall over the edge.

The voices got quieter and quieter, and she looked up to see a pack of rats retreating in a wave of dark defeat. As shock overwhelmed her completely, someone pushed her aside and began simple first aid. Killeen had been too overcome with emotion to even think of that.

"She has no pulse," was all she heard before everything faded to black.