The Invisible Monster

Ezra Pike was familiar with Jillian Williams mostly because she was nice to him even when she didn't have to be and when most others couldn't be bothered. It was sophomore year and Ezra's life had become unmanagable. His father had been dead for nearly two years and his "problem" older brother Matt had been acting out more than usual since their Dad's death.

Matt embarrassed the hell out of Ezra at that year's Christmas concert by becoming loud, unruly and biligerant in the middle of the performance, standing from his audience seat and screaming that there was no Jesus and that the Christmas story was a crock of shit. Matt was escorted out of the auditorium in front of hundreds of people, leaving Ezra standing on the stage red faced and humiliated, wanting to run away and die.

After that, everybody knew for a fact that Matt Pike was 'crazy' and Ezra had to carry that burden, often ostricized by kids talking behind his back (and even to his face) about his looney tunes brother who was known to walk the streets talking to himself when not causing scenes at various downtown businesses.

Jillian was in Ezra's history class and one day Ms. Gibson made the students pair off for a project. Of course nobody was interested in teaming with Ezra, not quite sure if he possessed the same 'crazy gene' as his brother. Quiet Ezra's lack of social skills grew worse after his Dad's death and Matt's worsening behaviors only magnified Ezra's insecurities which is why he made no effort to make eye contact or seek out a partner when Ms. Gibson made the announcement.

Ezra liked Ms. Gibson, a hip and modern teacher with a true love for history that she tried to instill in her students. She wore flaky clothes and her yellow blond hair long and exotic. She was as smart as she was pretty, cool as she was interesting.

"I'll work with you."

Ezra looked up to see Jillian Williams standing at the front of his desk with a smile on her face. He was humiliated to be seen as a charity case but grateful that a kind person like Jillian Williams would help him out. She was strikingly pretty in a girl next door sort of way with naturally red hair that she wore long, often in pig tails and pony tails, sometimes parted down the middle. She had freckles with red lips that were noticeable against her pale skin. From what Ezra observed in the past, Jillian was overtly friendly with a perpetual smile on her face. She was one of those students who could be positive even during a bomb scare, naturally personable with the ability to talk to anybody in the school – which was probably why she was talking to Ezra!

Ms. Gibson tasked the students to perform oral histories of living World War II generation individuals. Subjects could be those who served in the war or those who served in some capacity at home but the teacher wanted the students to come up with questions to ask that were relevant to the time period and to conduct extensive interviews of at least thirty-minutes in duration for each subject. The interview could be recorded on audiotape or videotape and captured in notes with a summary written for each interview.

"Do you know of anybody?" Ezra asked Jillian who took a seat at the desk next to him.

"My grandfather was in the Navy when the bomb was dropped on Hiromshima," Jillian announced proudly. "What about you?"

"My great uncle joined the Navy two days after Pearl Harbor," Ezra revealed.

"I heard about a woman who worked on the top secret Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge Tennessee as a young clerk," Jillian said as she gave some thought to the project. "And we have a neighbor who was a black solider in the seregated Army," she added.

"My mother worked with a lady who was a WAVE in the Navy at the end of the war," Ezra recalled.

"Sounds great!" Jillian smiled.

"So, which two are we going to pick?" Ezra asked now that they had come up with their list of potential candidates to interview.

"Two?" Jillian laughed. "What do you mean two?"

"Ms. Gibson said interview two people."

"She said at least two," Jillian clarified. "Here's something you need to know about me, E. I don't do anything half-assed. We're going to interview all five of these people and we're going to write an amazing report."

Ezra quickly learned not to question or challenge Jillian. She was in control, she was in charge, and it was her way or the highway! So they interviewed all five of the World War II era greatest generation heroes. This was 1994, fifty-three years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Jillian's grandfather was still working in his early seventies and Jillian and Ezra interviewed him on his front porch. He was a tall wiry man with a full head of gray hair he wore unusually long for a man his age. Jillian had drafted most of the questions although she got Ezra's input too. She asked most of the questions and took the notes while Ezra operated the video camera and occasionally chipped in with a question, usually at Jillian's prompt.

Jillian's grandfather had been career military and it was clear that she idolized and worshipped the guy. Ezra could see where Jillian got her toughness, discipline and can-do attitude and he was amused by Jillian's rah-rah spirit around her grandfather yet she blushed every time her grandfather referred to her as "Jilly".

Ezra's paternal great uncle Jimmy lived an hour away and Ezra's mom drove him and Jillian to Jimmy's house for the interview. Mrs. Pike was excited to see her son with a girl even though Ezra told her several times before picking up Jillian that this was just a school project and nothing else.

"Please don't embarrass me, Mom," Ezra pleaded. "She's not my date, she's my assignment partner."

Ezra's mom was an attractive woman in her early forties with naturally brown hair and she was able to keep the weight off her frame because of the stress she endured. Her face looked strained and drained and her eyes heavy but she always put her best face on, especially today with Jillian in their company.

Uncle Jimmy was a short stout man with balding hair but he had a swager to him that made Jillian smile. She asked the pre-written questions but then she ad-libbed some additional questions about Ezra and his Dad. Jimmy was happy to answer Jillian's inquiries, proudly talking about his late nephew and Ezra, although Jillian noted that Jimmy didn't mention Matt even once.

Mrs. Pike took Jillian and Ezra to lunch after the interview and Ezra was embarrassed at how his mother went out of her way to be charming and sweet to Jillian, chattering away like they were old friends. Ezra knew his mom was trying to grease the skids for him with Jillian which was awkward. He had no illusions that a girl like her would be interested in a guy like him.

Mrs. Sally McCallister was a fascinating interview. Jillian and Ezra didn't know squat about the complexity and scope of the Manhattan Project and they came to the interview with just a few questions and listened with fascination as Mrs. McCallister talked about how towns were wiped out in Tennessee so that 'Oak Ridge' could be built to house the massive buildings where the experiments were conducted. Thousands of Americans – most of them women – contributed to the secret project as civilians but few realized what they were actually working on. They only worked in certain areas of the 'base' and they were told not to talk to anybody about what they were doing. Living conditions were deplorable but there was a sense of patriotism contributing to the war effort and life long friendships were made.

"I go to reunions all the time," Mrs. McCallister smiled proudly as she showed the two teens photos from her time at Oak Ridge.

Mrs. McCallister was a well refined and handsomely dressed older woman but she looked young as she recalled her long forgotten memories of youth during a lost moment in history. Mrs. McCallister met her future husband at Oak Ridge but it wasn't until the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima that most of the workers on the project realized what they had been doing for more than two years in Oak Ridge.

Jillian's neighbor Mr. Rollins walked with a limp and talked with a raspy voice, both the results of injuries he suffered in the war and he talked about how he came home as a wounded warrior fighting for America's freedom only to face discrimination and suspicion at home in the post war America. He was a proud man who stood tall as he discussed race in America and he kept Jillian and Ezra captivated for well over an hour with his viewpoints and insights.

Ruth Tillman, who retired from the Greenville Box Company where Ezra's mom worked, was a young yeoman WAVE in Washington DC during the last few years of the war. When the conflict ended, she took off her uniform, got married, raised a family and rarely talked about her military experience.

"It seems so long ago now," Mrs. Tillman told Jillian and Ezra as they sat in her living room drinking lemonade listening to her story. She wore casual slacks and a pretty blouse and she had no pretenses about her, letting her gray hair grow naturally and wearing little make up. "I joined because I wanted to serve my country and when the war ended I went back to my life."

Jillian loved every moment she and Ezra spent on the project. Her enthusiasm and excitement rubbed off on Ezra who was usually a reserved and quiet person but he found himself getting sucked into the history, asking his questions with interest and insight and even adding some unplanned follow up questions on a few occasions.

Jillian had a small box shaped word processor and she spent hours typing up their report from her notes. She insisted that Ezra come to her house to help her brain storm ideas for the report, edit her draft, and add his own observations. It was the first time he had been inside a girl's house and he was nervous but Jillian acted as if they had known each other for years.

Jillian's parents were as cheerful as their daughter and the Williams family were always welcoming whenever Ezra stopped by. If Jillian's parents knew about his brother they were polite and respectful enough not to mention it.

Ezra was impressed with the final report, surprised at the depth of their reporting and the amazing detailed information they had mined from their subjects but he knew it was Jillian's drive and determination that got the excellent results. Jillian added a feminist spin while discussing Mrs. McCallister and Petty Officer Tillman as well as the liberal racial slant when discussing Mr. Rollins' experience. Ezra provided a patriot's salute to Jillian's grandfather and his Great Uncle Jimmy's experiences in the war.

"You know," Jillian confided in Ezra as they prepared their final report for Ms. Gibson. "I've been thinking of joining the military because of my grandfather but now that we met those four other amazing people I'm seriously committed to enlisting as soon as I graduate from high school."

"Really?" Ezra asked with surprise. "It's a tough place for women to fit in."

"All the more reason why I should join," Jillian grinned. "They need someone like me!"

Erza laughed and he realized how much he liked Jillian and how much he enjoyed her company these past few weeks. He was sad the project was over – he was going to miss Jillian's enthusiasm and good cheer.

Ms. Gibson loved the report – they got an A on it and Ms. Gibson picked theirs to represent the class by making it a part of the high school's history archives for future reference and use. It was the first time Ezra felt like he was part of something and that he had accomplished something meaningful in his high school career. The high he felt allowed him to tempoarily forget about the misery at home.

Ezra figured Jillian would ignore him once the project was done. She had her circle of friends while he was mostly a loner with an image problem so he was pleasently surprised when Jillian said hello to him while passing in the halls, sat next to him in Ms. Gibson's history class for the rest of the year, and even joined him for lunch on a few occasions.

"You probably shouldn't be seen with the weird kid," Ezra warned the first time Jillian ate lunch with him in the school cafeteria.

"What weird kid?" Jillian replied. "I have an aunt who is a drunk, E," she said. "We shouldn't be defined by our family. Whatever your brother does isn't your fault."

Ezra was stunned by her attitude and her willingness to break some of the unspoken high school etiquitte and clique rules by being willing to hang out with someone who didn't fit the norm. He found a sense of newfound confidence he hadn't experienced before and even when Matt was out of control at home Ezra no longer felt so helpless and powerless. He even stood up to his older brother on a few occasions when Matt was ranting and raving and although Matt was still physically aggressive and verbally abusive, Ezra felt like he had gained some control in the situation.

Coming home every night remained stressful and uncertain because Ezra and his mom never knew what kind of mood Matt was going to be in. He had been bouncing around from job to job since graduating from high school and he had become increasingly angry and violent since the death of his father. Now he couldn't even hold a job as he was too unstable and unpredictable to be dependable.

Matt didn't always take his meds and physically he was no match for his mother who had been pushed around and smacked by her large son on more than one occasion. Ezra had also been victimized by Matt's aggression – punched, kicked, and beat up several times. But knowing that he might get a chance to say hi to Jillian at school or eat lunch with her made it easier for Ezra to face the turmoil at home.

The death of Ezra's father had been sudden and unexpected. Matt's ongoing challenges were emotionally draining and Ezra's mom worked long hours at the box company to be able to pay the bills now that she was a single mother supporting two sons. She was always exhausted and forever burdened by Matt's unpredictable behaviors. Matt had been hospitalized a few times but his mother refused to have him institutionalized, convinced that she could handle him at home as long as he took his meds and didn't drink. Getting Matt to take his meds and not drink was the trick and the challenge.

Matt had physically changed in recent years too, thirty pounds overweight, his personal hygiene suspect, his hair long and unkept, his clothes soiled and tattered.

Sophomore year was nearly over and Ezra had no clue what he was supposed to do for the summer. The prospects of hanging around the house with his brother every day was not something he wanted to think about but he had yet to find a summer job he could walk or ride his bike to.

"Hey, E, wait up!"

It was Jillian following him down the school hall. He turned and waited for her to catch up, happy to see her.

"I was wondering if you'd be willing to do me a favor," she said when she reached him.

"Sure," Ezra said, convinced that he'd jump off a cliff for her if asked.

"I want to volunteer this summer at the Old Stone Mansion but my parents won't let me do it alone," Jillian said.

The Old Stone Mansion sat on the bank of the Blue River at the end of Hillsboro's Main Street. The house was built in the 1880s by Jonathan Barrentino, one of Hillsboro's most successful early businessmen and a pillar in the community. He also built the massive Mansion House Hotel (which burned down in the late 1940s), the town library, and several other buildings (some still standing) in the downtown area. The Stone Mansion House featured a unique architecture and was built from two types of masonry – fieldstone and limestone.

The Stone Mansion House was originally the Barrentino residence with the best view of the river in town Son Robert took over the property at the turn of the century and he became one of the town's most well known educators and community activitists, serving as Chairperson of the school board for nearly thirty years.

Old timers remember gala Chrsitmas parties held at the house in the 1930s but after Robert Barrentino died in 1947 the house sat empty for years. The estate finally sold the property to the Friends of the Stone Mansion House in the early 1960s and it was later established as a historical cultural center to display both family and community history, especially the boom era of Jonathan Barrentino's time when the downtown area of Hillsboro was established and expanded.

"The Old Stone Mansion?" Ezra asked with surprise. "Doing what?"

"We'd be tour guides," Jillian explained. "And man the information desk. And do yard work. House cleaning too. Just being a presence at the house."

"Why?" Ezra wondered.

Jillian rolled her eyes. "Please don't tell me you're going to be like everybody else," she complained.

"What do you mean?"

"Everybody thinks I'm a bore for wanting to volunteer there but I think it brings the history of Hillsboro alive and I want to be a part of it. Ms. Gibson's the one who told me about it. Come on, will you?"

"You want me to volunteer with you?" Ezra asked with amazement.

"It'll be fun," she said with a giggle.

"I don't think your parents would want you hanging out with me all summer."

"Don't be silly," Jillian replied with a wave of her hand. "They'll be glad to know I'm not alone. They've met you. They like you."

Ezra wanted to give her a hug and a kiss. His summer of gloom just turned a whole lot sunnier with the prospect of Jillian's inviation. He'd get to spend the whole summer with her!

Mrs. Montgomery was the Head Volunteer in Charge who assigned the hours. Jillian signed herself and Ezra up for 9 to 1, Monday through Friday which left Mrs. Montgomery speechless with relief and appreciation. She was a woman in her middle sixties with orange hair, committed to the Stone Mansion House and excited to have such dedicated volunteers for the entire summer.

As the summer progressed, Mrs. Montgomery saw that she could trust and rely on her morning team of Jillian and Ezra and she began giving them more responsibility and less oversight. Soon, they were practically running the place themselves during their four hour shifts. The Stone Mansion House didn't get a whole lot of visitors. There were a handful of regulars from the area who dropped in to chit-chat on a routine baisis and occasionally a visitor from out-of- town would stop by to check out the old mansion but hours passed without a person being seen in the building and that gave Jillian and Ezra plenty of time to hang out and talk when they weren't performing their other responsibilities like cleaning and general mentainence.

On most afternoons when they were done with their shift, the two teens stopped by Johnny C's Diner for a late lunch (although Ezra didn't have a whole lot of money and Jillian often treated) and sometimes they'd take a walk along the bike path next to the Blue River.

The less time Ezra spent at home the better he felt. Jillian gently asked Ezra about his brother from time to time - especially when she could tell that he was upset (or bruised) - and gradually Ezra began trusting Jillian enough to tell her the truth about his family, usually when they walked along the bike path.

Ezra told Jillian about his early happy memories when the family was perfect in his mind's eye. Matt was a terrific big brother who taught Ezra how to ride a bike and fish, helped him with his homework, and played games with him. There was a six year age difference but Matt was willing to spend time with his younger brother and Ezra cherished every one of those good times.

"So what happened?" Jillian asked.

"When Matt was thirteen - and I was seven - he hit his head hard while skateboarding without a helmet," Ezra explained. " He was in a coma for three days and never quite the same once he regained consciousness."

"I'm so sorry," Jillian said with sympathy.

"That's when his behavior started getting weird," Ezra told her. "He'd fly into fits of rage and anger over the simiplist of things. He started doing mean and evil things – but it wasn't until he killed the neighbor's cat that my parents got really alarmed. We were all frightened but my parents didn't want to send him away."

"They probably wanted to protect him," Jillian theorized with understanding. "I know intervention on my aunt was the hardest thing my father ever did."

"Matt was hearing voices and talking to himself," Ezra revealed. "He got suspended from school several times for inappropriate behavior. He got into trouble with the police. He was seen by several different therapists and counselors and he ended up in the adolescent psych unit a couple of times."

"At least he was getting some professional help," Jillian offered.

"I try not to think about the worse of it but I remember nights of terror when Matt was really out of control," Ezra admitted. "He'd have hallucinations and sometimes he'd respond by smashing stuff in the house or attacking one of us. I remember listening to him talking to himself in his bedroom, saying how people wanted to kill him and then he became increasing abusive and violent in his behaviors."

"That's really scary," Jillian said with concern.

"My parents felt so guilty and powerless about Matt's mental illness that they showered him with whatever he wanted," Ezra sighed.

"Probably hoping he'd get better," Jillian said.

"They let him stay at the house even when he became a danger to himself and us," Ezra revealed. "He scared the living daylights out of me. I'd keep my bedroom door locked all the time and I tried to ignore what was going on even though I couldn't sleep at night for fear he might kill me. I tried to talk with him and sometimes he'd be lucid and acting like the old Matt but that didn't last long. I got depressed and I lost interest in doing stuff. I didn't want my friends to know what was going on so I stopped hanging around with them. My bedroom became my haven and my escape."

"But you couldn't stop people from knowing," Jillian reminded him.

"I know," Ezra sighed. "He'd leave the house talking to himself, hissing, spitting, pounding on doors and windows, scaring people, vandalizing places. The secret was out and I knew that kids were talking about him and me and I just wanted to run away. I avoided going where there were people. I rode my bike with no destination, just to feel like I was moving and escaping."

"But you were really stuck in your own personal hell," Jillian observed.

"Especially after my Dad died," Ezra agreed. "That's when it started really becoming unmanageable. My mother was overwhelmed by her loss and grief but she still had to deal with Matt so she really didn't have much time for me."

"So you became even more of a loner," Jillian remarked.

"Yeah," Ezra admitted with a sigh.

"I like your mom," Jillian said with a happy smile. "We had fun that day we had lunch with her."

"She likes you," Ezra grinned. "I think she liked being a normal mom with a normal kid for a change, even if it was only for a few hours."

"And you are normal, E," Jillian said. "No matter what other kids say about you. You're not your brother."

Ezra nodded his head even if deep down he really didn't believe her.

Ezra enjoyed the new sensation of having a confidant like Jillian in his life. It was the first time he had someone he could talk to and hang out with without feeling self-conscious, pranoid, or insecure. Jillian knew everything so there was no reason to be guarded with her. Of course, there was no way he could bring her to his house – Ezra didn't want Matt to know about her and he didn't want Jillian seeing Matt when he was in a dark or bad place.

Jillian invited Ezra to her house frequently– to watch a movie on the VCR or to join in a backyard family barbeque. Her family was welcoming and accepting and Ezra didn't feel like he was being judged or talked about behind his back. It was the first time in a long time that Ezra felt like he belonged somewhere. He adored Jillian and he would be forever grateful for her friendship and support. She was the most positive and cheerful person he had ever met.

It was a platonic relationship and that was okay with Ezra. He was only fifteen and emotionally he wasn't ready for a serious romance although he thought Jillian was the prettiest girl he'd ever seen. He knew she'd gone out with guys and she had a few dates as the summer went on but Ezra was in no position to question her social life or be jealous. He was just happy she talked to him let alone hung out with him.

Jillian liked to tease Ezra about their unique friendship, calling him the brother she never had (she was an only child).

"We're better off as friends anyway," she told Ezra during one lazy quiet and boring morning standing duty at the Stone Mansion House. "Friendship's the glue that keeps us from coming apart because friendship is a stronger bond than silly high school romances. Heck, friendships usually last longer than marriages!"

Ezra nodded in agreement.

"I've already told you more secrets than I told any guy I dated," Jillian informed him. "I can drop my mask and just be myself when I'm with you without worrying about how I'm perceived. I don't have to try to make you like me because I already know you do. We both see each other as we really are instead of who we pretend to be. What you see is what you get."

"Yeah, our faults are our virtues!" Ezra teased.

"I'd hate to lose the honesty we share," Jillian said.

"Well, what would be the deal breaker?" Ezra asked. "What could end our friendship?"

Jillian gave him a look of annoyance. "I honestly can't think of anything," she finally answered after a few moments of thought. "I mean I accidentally passed gas in front of you the other day and you didn't even say anything."

"I didn't want to embarrass you," Ezra explained.

"What if I murdered someone?" Jillian asked. "Would you still be my friend? Would you stand by me?"

Ezra considered her question for a moment. "Even murder wouldn't change how I felt about you," he decided. "I wouldn't help you try to cover it up or get rid of the body or anything but I'd still be your friend."

"You'd come visit me in my orange jump suit?" She smiled.

Ezra was amused at how easily he and Jillian clicked together. Her cheerful positive personality was infectious and he liked being around such a remarkable person who made him feel better about himself. He tried to remember her upbeat influence when he went home to face the wrath of Matt. It was surprising that Jillian saw through Ezra's defensive and negative shield and was willing to be his friend even if they didn't have all that much in common.

Jillian knew that Ezra was short of money so she enlisted her father to give Ezra a part time job in the afternoons cleaning up in his hardware store. The job put a few bucks in Erza's pocket and gave him something to do in the late afternoon to provide him another opportunity to avoid Matt who had been in a bad place for more than a month, rarely leaving his room, placing dark curtains over his windows, and covering the electrical plugs with duct tape "to stop the alien radio waves from coming in".

Ezra also got to know Jillian's dad and hopefully proved that he was a good kid. Mr. Williams was an easy going fellow who looked like he was born to run a hardware store. He was tall and burly, muscled and handsome, smart and knowledgeable. He liked his job and that made Ezra like being there working for him.

With some spending money, Ezra was able to go out for pizza with Jillian on occasion and he was able to buy his own lunch when they stopped by Johnny C's Diner after their shift at the Stone Mansion House. Jillian had an above ground pool in her back yard and sometimes after their afternoon walk on the bike path they would head to her house for a dip. Mrs. Williams was usually home so there was nothing scandalous about those occurrences even when Jillian appeared in her 'quaint' bathing suits. They had been friends long enough now to know about each others life, histories and quirks.

Mrs. Williams sometimes sat on the pool deck and chatted with them while they cooled in the water. Sometimes Mrs. Williams would invite Ezra back to the house for dinner when he was done with his shift at the hardware store. She was an attractive woman with lighter shade of Jillian's red hair, curled and shorter. She was well toned and she wasn't shy about wearing a revealing bathing suit around the pool in front of Ezra.

Jillian stopped seeing Josh after a few dates when she discovered he had been going out with other girls too. Ezra tried to be a supportive friend regarding that betrayal but Jillian insisted that she really could care less about the guy.

"I'm having a nice summer with you," she told Ezra.

Ezra didn't think their platonic relationship would change much after Josh left the picture but it seemed he and Jillian were spending more time together, partly because he had money and was more free to do stuff with her, partly because he worked for her Dad, and mostly because there was the twenty hours a week they spent together volunteering at the Stone Mansion House. Mrs. Montgomery had them to dinner one evening to show her appreciation for their jobs well done.

One afternoon, Jillian and Ezra returned from their walk along the bike path to take a swim but Mrs. Williams wasn't home, Jillian had forgotten her key, and they were locked out of the house.

"We can change in the garage," Jillian said with a shrug a she grabbed her bathing suit from the clothes line and led Ezra into the structure. He had his bathing suit on under his shorts so he didn't have to change but he found himself in the garage anyway so he removed his pants and sneakers.

Jillian kept her back to him as she quickly slipped out of her clothes and put on her bathing suit but not before Ezra caught a look at her naked rear and suddenly he felt very dizzy as disorientation swept through his body and he started breathing heavily. Jillian must have picked up on his reaction because she glanced over her shoulder and giggled.

"Come on E, we're friends here," she said, unabashedly.

He didn't respond as he stumbled out of the garage following Jillian to the pool. He couldn't believe she had let him see what he had seen but he was glad she did. It made him feel like he mattered and that she trusted him enough to share something so personal and private with him.

It was a bright lazy summer as they climbed into the pool and swam around the outer circle a few times. Jillian kept smirking at him and Ezra wasn't sure if she was making fun of him or trying to tell him something. He felt himself getting nervous so he said a quiet prayer for strength and courage because this was all new to him. He felt a sudden wave of happiness rush through him. How strange that he didn't know what it was like to have someone in his life that was happy to be with him but there was Jillian swimming around the pool smiling and teasing him.

Ezra must have experienced an endorphin release because he felt a weightless sensation as he floated around the pool, the pitter-patter of his heart pounding in his chest as he thought about Jillian. He had been miserably defeated for so long that the very idea of happiness replacing his accustomed cynicism and negativity left him confused. His stomach hurt but his soul felt revived.

Jillian stopped swimming and now she was standing in the middle of the pool (it was only about five feet deep in the center) staring at him.

"What?" He asked nervously as he squatted in the water that was up to his chin.

"Summer's almost over," she sighed.

Ezra felt a pang of sadness ice his veins. "Yeah," he groaned. "School soon."

"It won't be so bad for you this year," she predicted.

"Hopefully," he responded although he really had no clue what was going to happen.

"We'll definitely hang out," she predicted.

"Sure," he replied evenly.

"For sure," Jillian laughed.

Ezra smiled thinking about her and then he realized that she was looking at him, her eyes squinting in the sunlight and he couldn't help but see just how beautiful she was. Jillian giggled as she slowly moved closer to him. He stared at her nervously wondering if she was going to do something daring. She sucked in some pool water and spit it at him, laughing with delight at the look on his face.

"E," she said warmly. "It's all okay."

He was pretty sure she was going to kiss him but the sound of her mother's car could be heard entering the driveway and Jillian laughed, almost as if she had it all planned.

"Next time," she whispered as she swam toward the deck.

Next time. That's all Ezra could think about as he worked his few hours at the hardware store, interacting with Jillian's dad while resisting the urge to brag 'I saw your daughter's ass!' and trying not to fantasize about the kiss that may have almost happened in the pool. Of course, he could have been completely off base, totally misreading the entire situation. After all, they were platonic friends and that's why she let him see her rear – no threat, no expectation, no interest.

Ezra was almost finished with his shift when the police car pulled to the curb in front of the hardware store. He recognized Officer Buchanan who had been to the house several times when Matt was out of control. There was a grave look on the officer's face and when Ezra's eyes met Buchanan's, Jillian's platonic friend knew something terrible had happened.

Hillsboro man stabs mother to death before killing himself

By Kyle Lee, Greenville News and Dispatch Staff Writer

Hillsboro — Investigators are trying to piece together what drove a 21-year-old man to stab his mother to death before taking his own life at their Hillsboro home late yesterday afternoon.

Deborah Pike, 43, of 27 Holly Avenue, died of multiple wounds to the neck, the Blue County medical examiner's office ruled in its preliminary finding.

Her son, Matthew Pike of the same address, died of self-inflicted wounds to his neck and right wrist, according to the initial police report.

The grisly scene was discovered by Hillsboro Police who were called to the house after several 911 calls from neighbors reported screaming coming from the Pike home. Police are not commenting on what may have led to the crime but authorities say a sharp kitchen carving knife was found at the bloody scene.

Police have not released the contents of the 911 calls. Crime scene investigators were at the home in the middle class residential neighborhood late into the night. One witness reported that the kitchen was "bathed in blood".

Neighbors say Deborah Pike was employed with the Greenville Box Company and that her husband, Nestor, a bus driver with the BCTA, passed away a few years ago.

Police say that Deborah Pike's fifteen year old high school student son Ezra was not home at the time of the murder-suicide and is now staying with family members.

Records indicate there have been at least a dozen police calls to the residence in the past several years but Police declined to comment on the nature of the calls.

One neighbor, who declined to give her name, described Matthew Pike as mentally ill and said he had been in trouble "countless times" in recent years.

Records show that Matthew Pike was arrested last year for public intoxication. He also faced charges of malicious destruction of personal property, disturbing the peace, making annoying phone calls, lewd conduct, and driving with a suspended license.

This is the first reported murder in Hillsboro in several years and, according to one long time observer, "easily the most gruesome".

*** *** ***
Thirty-five year old Ezra Pike sat in the lawyer's office of his late grandmother. It had been two months since Grandma's passing (and three years since his grandfather died) and Attorney Robinson was announcing the final estate.

Ezra sat listening to Robbie going through the various expenses and costs of settling the estate, listing the assets, and clarifying what was left to Ezra (the sole remaining heir) in the will which included a modest inheritance, the house, "and of course the house in Hillsboro" Robbie remarked.

Ezra stiffened in his chair. "What?" He asked with surprise.

"The house in Hillsboro," Robbie repeated. He was a tall man with balding blonde hair and heavy wire rimmed glasses.

"I assumed they sold that," Ezra said.

"No, they rented it all these years," Robbie informed him.

"Wow, I didn't know that," Ezra said, caught off guard by the news. "Why would they do that?"

"Maybe they wanted you to have options," Robbie replied, glancing at his notes. "They let a rental agency handle most of the responsibilities. And there's a storage unit holding all the household belongs."

"Why would they leave me to deal with this?" Ezra sighed heavily. "I haven't been to Hillsboro since..." his voice trailed off.

Robbie waited patiently for Ezra to collect himself.

"Are the tenants interested in buying?" Ezra finally asked.

"No," Robbie reported. "It's a young married couple. The husband is finishing his Masters at Green College. They'll be leaving at the end of the school year."

Ezra sat back in his chair and sighed heavily. Dealing with his grandparents' estate was emotional and stressful enough on its own. He didn't need the added burden of dealing with his parents' property in Hillsboro which he assumed was long gone. His grandparents never mentioned the Hillsboro part of his life from the moment he was whisked away from his hometown the night of the tragedy.

Grandma's house felt especially empty when Ezra came home from the lawyer's office. He moved in soon after his divorce which was right around the time his grandfather died. His presence gave Grandma company in her grief and loneliness and it allowed Ezra a chance to financially recover from the costly divorce when he was forced to sell the house even though they owed more on the mortgage than the house was assessed.

Grandma rebounded from the loss of her husband and she and Ezra had a couple of good years together. Ezra continued to work at Home Depot where he first began as a high school kid at his grandfather's insistence, having worked his way up from the maintenance department to sales associate to a training manager, all at the same store. His grandparents' house was long ago paid off and Ezra figured he'd stay in the house now unless Lena his ex tried to go after those assets too.

Grandma's illness was sudden and rapid. She was dead four months following her diagnosis, the last few weeks spent with Hospice care. It was a 'good death' one of the hospice workers told Ezra when his grandmother passed, reconciled with her Lord and savior and ready to join her husband. But Ezra was totally alone now. Uncle Jimmy had passed several years earlier and his mom had been orphaned, fostered, and adopted with no known family left by the time she married Ezra's dad.

Robbie provided Ezra with the name of the rental agency for the Hillsboro House and Ezra chatted with the manager several times over the phone. He also talked with a real estate agent named Elizabeth Miller-Braft on the phone about putting his parents' house up for sale but he knew he would have to drive down there and check out the situation himself before making any final decisions.

Ezra spent the next few months downsizing his grandparents' possessions – donating their clothing to goodwill, having a tag sale to move excess furniture and other effects (including some of the furniture and other belongings Lena didn't want from their house). He had to go through piles of old bills and other paperwork and weed through a generation of outdated and worthless collectables all the way back to his fathers' third grade report card.

The ongoing project kept Ezra busy and distracted but eventually he was done with the task at hand and that meant that he needed to shift his attention and focus on the Hillsboro property. Millie Morrison, the rental agency representative, informed Ezra that the renters had vacated the premises and that Ezra needed to decide if he was going to rent the property out again or sell. Elizabeth Miller-Braft reported that the house didn't need much work to prepare for a sale and the listing price she recommended was encouraging.

Ezra had been putting off making a trip to Hillsboro but he knew the time had come and he needed to confront his demons, fears, and ghosts. It had been twenty years since the tragedy and he hoped enough time had passed that those in Hillsboro had forgotten about what happened and that he could slip into town without being noticed. He had to Mapquest directions to Hillsboro having forgotten everything about it in the ensuing years but as soon as he drove across the Blue River Bridge into downtown Hillsboro the memories came rushing back.

The Stone Mansion House still sat on the bank overlooking the river. Johnny C's Diner was still in business as was the Hillsboro Pizza House, two of the places Ezra hug out the most. He saw that the Williams Tru-Value Hardware Store also remained and while it all felt like a long forgotten dream, Ezra knew he had been here before.

He didn't have any trouble finding the house but it was hard actually pulling the car into the driveway. The last time he had been there was the morning of that terrible day. He met his mother in the kitchen as she prepared to go to work and he grabbed something to eat before heading to volunteer at the Stone Mansion House.

"Have a good day, Ezra," were the last words his mom ever said to him as she left the house.

Matt was barricaded in his room as usual. Ezra hadn't seen him in several days but he didn't think twice about it as he left for the Stone Mansion House, more interested in being able to spend quality time with Jillian instead of worrying about his crazy brother.

It turned out to be the best day of his life when Jillian changed in front of him in the garage and almost kissed him in the pool and Ezra was convinced that his life just took a monumental change for the better. He was in seventh heaven working at the hardware store but when Officer Buchanan came through the door with that dire look on his face Ezra knew his life had changed (for the worse) forever.

Officer Buchanan was a tall, good looking rugged cop with a stoned face and serious demeanor. He didn't say a word as he brought Ezra to the Hillsboro Police Station where he was put in an interview room and asked a bunch of questions by several different officers – some in uniform and some in plain clothes. How often was your brother violent? Did he ever threaten you or your mother? Did he ever have a knife in his possession? When was the last time you saw your brother? Was he taking his meds? When was the last time you were home? Did you notice anything different or peculiar?

Ezra was then led into the Chief Police's office where he was greeted by Chief Kelly and a social worker. He had anticipated the worse but when he was told that his brother had murdered his mother in a knife attack and then taken his own life Ezra was forever stunned by the unfathomable news. Being with Jillian those past few months had softened Ezra but he was quick to resume the shut-down-feel-nothing survival mode he was used to when he learned that his mother and brother were dead. The social worker was supportive and helpful and Ezra was polite and honest to a point but mostly he rewired his reality in the moment and prepared for a whole new life.

Ezra's paternal grandparents drove down from Augusta to take custody of their grandson. They gave him hugs when they entered the Police Chief's office and then they escorted him from the Police Station just as Jillian came running from her father's car to give Ezra a hug.

"I'm so sorry, E," she sobbed as she clung to him.

Ezra was too dazed to respond and later he wondered if it had been a dream, him holding Jillian one last time. Mr. Williams was standing on the curb with a sympathetic look on his face as Jillian rushed back to him for a hug as Ezra was put in the backseat of his grandparents' car. They drove him back to Maine that night and that's when his new life began.

Now Ezra could feel his legs shaking as he slowly climbed out of the car in the driveway of the house he spent the first fifteen years of his life living in. It was a surreal feeling to be back after a twenty year absence and he was apprehensive about entering the home where his mother and brother died. Elizabeth Miller-Braft left a key for him in the mail slot and he found it without trouble. The outside of the house looked well maintained and the yard had been recently mowed. The interior was empty but the rooms looked to be in good shape. Mrs. Miller-Braft mentioned that the refrigerator and hot water heater had been replaced in recent years and that the rental agency painted the interior rooms each time the house was between tenants although they hadn't done so after the last family moved out. She mentioned that the house could use a window upgrade and that the roof would need to be replaced in a few years.

A wave of sadness swept through Ezra's bones as he stood in the entryway remembering the home of his youth. Everybody he knew from this place was dead and he could sense their ghosts as he wandered through the empty house, his feet echoing through the still rooms. He stopped in the doorway of his old bedroom and recalled the many hours he spent held up in there trying to avoid and escape his brother.

Ezra couldn't bring himself to enter the kitchen knowing that was where the crime had taken place. Chief Kelly had given him a sense of what had happened while he sat in the Chief's office waiting for his grandparents. How his mother had apparently come home from work early not feeling well and somehow startled or perhaps enraged Matt who was found wearing only underwear. There weren't any defensive wounds so the Chief theorized that Ezra's mom died quickly. Although she had been stabbed multiple times, most of the wounds appeared to be administered posthumously. The body was lying in front of the outside kitchen door when Police arrived and they had to push it out of the way to enter the house.

Ezra noticed that the kitchen linoleum he remembered had been replaced with tile and that the cupboards were different too. The room had probably been completely done over to eradicate any evidence of a murder scene. To Ezra's surprise, the feeling of ghoulishness did not overwhelm him as much as he feared. The more time he spent in the house the less paranoid and fearful he became. He had twenty years to process and deal with the tragedy and as long as he didn't focus on thinking about the murder scene the house felt tranquil and serine. Almost like he was home again.

Even after twenty years of living in Augusta, Ezra still felt like a transient – a visitor – a guest. He lived in his father's old room in his grandparents' house while finishing high school. He bounced around several apartments until he and Lena married and bought a house but the marriage barely lasted five years and Ezra found himself living once again in his grandparents' house. Even now living there without his grandparents he still felt like he didn't belong there no matter how much he tried to make the place his own.

Ezra left the house of his youth, locked the door and slipped into his car feeling reasonably okay about his return. He had been gone twenty years but it still felt like this was his real home and he took a sentimental drive through the streets of Hillsboro to be reminded of the familiar neighborhoods. He was surprised at how easily it all came back to him – the high school looked the same, the downtown looked mostly the same, and he smiled when he passed the Stone Mansion House again.

Of course, there was really only one thing that Ezra Pike really cared about in Hillsboro but he was certain that she was long gone, convinced that she had followed her dream of joining the military. Hillsboro was too small to keep a talent like Jillian Williams there.

Ezra wasn't sure what possessed him to pull into an empty parking space in front of Williams' Tru Value Hardware Store. Nostalgia? A need for closure? A quest to say hello to Mr. Williams? A want for some information on Jillian? What was the point? He had a job and house in Augusta. There was nothing for him in Hillsboro so why make his presence known to those who knew him before? Just drive to the real estate agency and tell Mrs. Miller-Braft to put the house on the market and then drive back to Augusta as if he had never been back at all.

But Ezra found himself climbing out of his car and approaching the front door of the hardware store. The familiar bell clanged when he opened the glass door and stepped inside, the store still cluttered and overcrowded but with the same at-home folksy feel Ezra remembered from when he briefly worked there. He strolled to the check out counter on the left side of the store where Mr. Williams was bent over writing in a ledger. He was grayer and a bit more wrinkled than from when Ezra knew him but he had the same friendly smile when he glanced up at the approaching customer.

"Hello there, how can I help you?" The owner greeted cheerfully.

"Hello, Mr. Williams, how are you?" Ezra replied boldly, trying not to smile in happiness seeing Jillian's dad again after so much time.

Mr. Williams peered at the stranger for a long moment and Ezra could see the recognition fill his eyes. "Ezra," he exclaimed with a look of wonderment on his face.

He extended his hand across the counter.

Ezra accepted Mr. Williams' hand in a shake. "It's good to see you."

"No offense, son, but what are you doing here?" Mr. Williams asked.

"Settling my grandparents' estate," Ezra explained. "Turns out they never sold my parents' house here in Hillsboro although I have no idea why."

Mr. Williams examined Ezra for a long moment. "Maybe you were supposed to come back," he suggested.

"Twenty years later?" Ezra frowned.

"Better late then never," Mr. Williams replied as he took his work apron off. "Luther," he called toward the back storage room. "Man the fort. I'll be at Duffy's if you need me." He motioned toward Ezra. "Come with me," he requested.

Ezra did as Mr. Williams asked, following him outside into the warm mid July sun. They walked a block down Main Street to Duffy's Tavern, a square shaped brick building Ezra recalled from his childhood although he'd never been inside. Neither man spoke until they were inside the tavern and seated at the bar where Mr. Williams ordered a shot of whiskey and Ezra went with a beer. The tavern had a laid back feel to it.

"So," Mr. Williams asked. "You married?"

"Not anymore," Ezra sighed.

"Working?"

"I'm a trainer at Home Depot," he revealed.

Mr. Williams nodded with understanding as he took a sip from his whiskey shot glass but he didn't ask any further questions. Ezra figured maybe it was his turn.

"Do they still talk about it?" he asked cautiously.

"It's been a long time, Ezra," Mr. Williams replied. "Most people have moved on. It comes up occasionally when there's a murder in the area but that's about it."

Ezra let out a sigh of relief. "I just don't want to be some freak," he said.

"It was never about you," Mr. Williams told him.

"It felt like it was," Ezra admitted, taking a long swig from his beer mug.

"I can't imagine what it must have been like for you," Mr. Williams remarked.

"Maine was pretty far away," Ezra shrugged.

"Didn't make it any easier though, did it?" Mr. Williams asked.

"No," Ezra sighed. "In some ways, it only made it worse."

"Well, you seem to be doing okay," Mr. Williams concluded.

"Yeah," Ezra mumbled after a long pause. "Okay."

Mr. Williams ordered another shot and Ezra realized that there was something different about him – something….sad. He was silent and Ezra wondered if he should ask about Jillian although he wasn't sure how he would react if Mr. Williams told him she was happily married with five kids.

"Everything okay with the family?" Ezra finally asked when it became clear that Mr. Williams wasn't going to kick-start the conversation.

"Sure," Mr. Williams replied. "I've managed to keep the store going even with Lowes' moving in over in Greenville," he said. "Wife still works with the florist. We're doing okay."

What about Jillian!? Ezra desperately wanted to scream but he didn't need to appear overly obvious or even pathetic. When Mr. Williams continued to stare into his shot glass Ezra began to fear that Mr. Williams wasn't telling him something. Was it about Jillian?

When a few more awkwardly quiet moments passed Ezra realized that it was up to him to ask the questions.

"So, did Jillian join the military like she said she was going to?" Ezra boldly inquired.

"Yes, she did," Mr. Williams replied with no real inflection in his voice. "Army, right out of high school just like she always wanted."

"Good for her," Ezra smiled proudly.

"Good for her," Mr. Williams almost whispered in reply.

Ezra was concerned now. "Mr. Williams," he sighed, sensing something was wrong.

"You can call me Bob if you want, Ezra," Mr. Williams told him.

"Bob, did something happen to Jillian?" Ezra asked straight out.

"Yes," he answered calmly.

Ezra waited for him to continue but he didn't. Ezra could feel his heart beating in his chest "What happened to her?" He asked when Bob remained quiet.

"The wars," Bob finally replied, emptying his second shot glass down his throat. "The wars happened to her."

"She's dead?" Ezra asked fearfully.

Bob shook his head no. "Broken," he revealed. "The wars broke her."

"I don't understand," Ezra remarked after giving it some thought. "What are you saying?"

Bob held his hand up to his head, pointed his finger at his temple and made a circular motion. "She's broken in the head, Ezra," he explained, ordering a third shot from the bartender.

Ezra emptied his mug and ordered a second beer. "Where is she?" Ezra wanted to know.

"Living with us right now," Bob revealed with a heavy sigh. "It can be tough sometimes."

"I lived with a brother who was broken in the head," Ezra reminded Jillian's dad.

"So you probably want to get in your car and hightail it back to Maine," Bob replied with understanding.

"Did she suffer a head injury?" Ezra asked. "Brain damaged?"

"No, she had a break down," Bob sighed. "She's messed up pyschlogically."

"I'm really sorry to hear that," Ezra said quietly.

"She was a good soldier, Ezra," Bob said proudly. "Served her country well. She was already in five years when 9/11 happened and she became even more determined to succeed in her career and defend her country. But those bastards burned her out. Took from her until she had nothing left to give. Pushed her and used her. Kept sending her back knowing she wasn't going to say no. She was a proud solider. Committed and dedicated. She did what was asked of her until she couldn't do it anymore." Bob hung his head over his drink and let out a heavy moan. "My poor baby girl," he sighed.

"I'd like to see her," Ezra said.

Bob glanced at him. "Nobody has to know you were here, Ezra," he said. "You don't have to open up this Pandora's Box."

"I'd like to see her," Ezra repeated.

"You live in Maine."

"I'd like to see her," Ezra said one more time.

"You haven't seen each other in a long time," Bob warned. "You're not kids anymore. A lot has changed. She's changed."

"Let me see her," Ezra said quietly.

"What's the point?" Bob wanted to know.

"She's the only real friend I ever had, Bob," Ezra told him. "She helped me when I was hurting. Now it's my turn."

Bob stared at Ezra for a long moment. "I've got to close the store first," he replied, tossing a wad of bills onto the bar.

"I think I remember how to do some of that," his former employee said with a smile as they left the tavern.

Bob was a little unsteady on his feet as they walked back to the hardware store but he managed well enough not to alarm Ezra. Luther was an older man who didn't ask any questions when Bob and Ezra returned from Duffy's. Bob explained the Luther was a retired town worker who liked to stay busy, working about twenty hours week at the hardware store.

When the store was properly closed, Ezra followed Bob to the Williams' house in his own car. He was feeling extremely nervous and anxious as he drove, wondering what kind of shape he would find Jillian in. After years of dealing with a schizophrenic brother, was Ezra prepared to face Jillian's challenges? But all he could think of was her smile and her enthusiasm and her belief in him and somehow he knew it was going to be okay.

Ezra parked his car at the curb in front of the house and he met Bob on the front walk. Both men walked up the porch steps and Bob unlocked the front door.

"I brought home a surprise!" Bob announced once he opened the door.

Mrs. Williams came out of the kitchen wearing an apron and Ezra could smell supper cooking in the other room. She looked the same with just a few extra wrinkles, pounds, and grey hair streaks the difference from the last time Ezra saw her. But, like Bob, Mrs. Williams appeared to be tired and drained. She stopped in the doorway and peered at Ezra trying to place him.

"It's Ezra Pike," her husband explained.

"Oh my word!" Mrs. Williams exclaimed, putting her hand to her mouth. "I don't believe it."

She gave Ezra a warm hug and her face was lit up in a smile when she broke the embrace. "Welcome home, Ezra," she said.

"Thanks," Ezra replied and he wondered if this really was home.

The Williams' home was pretty much the same as Ezra remembered from his days of youth when Jillian was so kind as to invite him over for dinners, and movies, and swimming. Some new furniture and wallpaper in places but that was about it.

"What's going on?"

All three faces turned toward the stairs and from his angle the first thing Ezra saw was a pair of naked legs appearing, followed by hips covered in short green shorts, then a yellow tee-shirt with 'ARMY' written across the chest in black letters, and finally a face that he would have recognized anywhere, even with the dark circle under the eyes and the scowl on the face. Jillian's hair was still red, but it was much shorter than the last time Ezra saw her and there was no particular style to it.

Jillian stopped at the bottom of the stairs and stared at the vistor. Ezra was afraid he might pass out from anticipation, excitement, worry, and nervousness.

"E," was all Jillian said when she realized who was standing with her parents.

"Hello, Jillian," Ezra replied. "It's nice to see you."

"Look who I bumped into today, Jilly!" Bob said with enthusiastic hope.

She slowly walked across the room and silently fell into him. Ezra wrapped his arms around her and squeezed her close. He hadn't noticed that her parents had left the room as they stood holding each other for a long time, neither wishing to let go.

"What took you so long?" Jillian finally whispered.

"I didn't know," Ezra replied, breaking the embrace and looking into her eyes.

"Have you come to see my invisible monsters?" Jillian asked as she stepped away from him and sat on the seat underneath the bay window in the living room. "I don't know when they will attack."

She pulled a tissue from her shorts pocket, dabbed her eyes and sighed as she glanced out the window. "How have you been?"

"Most of my monsters went away," Ezra replied as he stepped to the window seat and sat next to her. "Took a while though," he admitted. "My grandparents made me go to therapy when I first went to live with them."

"What are you doing here?" She wondered, glancing at him.

"My grandparents never sold my mother's house," he said with a shrug. "I came down to check on it."
"Aren't you afraid that might trigger your memories of trauma?" Jillian asked. "Coming back to place you tried to forget?"

"I never forgot you," Ezra replied.

"Maybe you should now," Jillian suggested.

"Why?" Ezra asked.
"I'm in a constant struggle with myself, E," she revealed sadly. "I have destructive thoughts and vices. I'm not doing very well at all."

"You have to give it time," Ezra told her. "That's what my therapist always told me."

"Did you have PTSD?" Jillian wondered. "The silent killer? The invisible monster?

"I think the diagnosis was depression but it's all the same stuff in the end anyway," Ezra replied.
"I'm so ashamed," she said. "I don't talk about what had happened." She stared out the window again. "I isolate which is my coping mechanism for survival."

"I know how to do that," Ezra told her. "I've been doing it since I was seven."

"Even now?" Jillian asked, glancing at him.

"My wife said I was distant, cold, and moody," Ezra sighed. "That's why she divorced me. "I wasn't 'present', she accused."

"I'm sorry," Jillian said with sympathy.

"What happened that day was never discussed again," Ezra revealed. "From the moment I got in the car that night my grandparents never mentioned it. It was as if my life prior to living with them never happened. They sent me to a counselor to make sure I wouldn't be stabbing them to death but it was never talked about. I carried the secret for twenty years."

"Geez, E," was all Jillian could think to say.

"So you're not alone," he reminded her.

"I let everybody down," Jillian remarked. "My Army team. My parents. Myself. But I just couldn't perform anymore. If I stayed, I would have gotten myself or someone else killed. Now I'm just a throw-away. I'll never be part of the team again."

"What happened?" Ezra asked.

"The invisible monsters started following me on maneuvers and that affected my performance," she said. "Nightmares. Flashbacks. Irritability. It became a battle every day. I kept everyone at a distance. I couldn't focus or concentrate. I couldn't complete basic tasks and I never knew when the invisible monster would appear. I could barely function. I was frustrated, panicked and alone. It was scary. I was burned out. Fried. Cooked. Done. There were a lot of days I don't even remember. It's a blur. They finally put me on a helicopter and flew my ass out of harms way and into never land."

"Never land?" Ezra asked.

"That's what I call my life now," she said sadly. "They medically discharged me. Shell shocked. PTSD. Crazy. Whatever you want to call it. Now what am I supposed to do?"

"Get better," Ezra answered. "Have you hit bottom yet?"

"I don't know."

"I knew I hit bottom when my wife walked out on me," Ezra told her. "That my life was a mess and I was going to die alone and lonely if I didn't figure out how to live with my invisible monsters."

"What is your invisible monster?" Jillian asked with interest.

"A psychotic brother who terrorized me and killed my mother," Ezra replied. "The ghosts of silence. Living with a terrible secret. Not sharing my feelings with anybody because the message I got was don't talk about it."

"Excuse me, guys, but are you hungry?" It was Mrs. Williams awkwardly standing in the doorway. "Supper's ready if you're interested," she informed them.

Jillian smiled at Ezra. "Just like the old days, huh E?"

He grinned as he stood. "I've missed your mom's cooking," he admitted.

Jillian smiled sadly as she stood too and escorted Ezra into the living room. Mrs. Williams had cooked a goulash which was tasty. Ezra didn't eat home cooked meals much anymore – he wasn't the greatest cook and he didn't have the patience to prepare meals so he ate out or bought fast food and supermarket salads home.

Mrs. Williams updated Ezra on some of the changes around town the past twenty years and the visitor was amused to realize that he really hadn't missed much. Businesses from his youth had closed and new ones opened, many of which had come and gone in his absence. Old timers he remembered had passed on. But basically the place was the same, a nice small New England home town.

Ezra told them about Augusta. Finishing high school there and getting his job at Home Depot and meeting Lena at work and his grandparents dying and now trying to figure out what he was supposed to do with the house he didn't know about in Hillsboro.

"You could live in it," Mrs. Williams said openly.

Ezra laughed at her bluntness and honesty. "Just like that?" He asked, raising his eyebrow.

"Home Depot?" Mrs. Williams frowned. "That's what you're going to do with the rest of your life?"

"I don't know," Ezra admitted.

"Mother," Jillian said. "It's his life."

"Don't you think there's a reason why your grandparents kept the house, Ezra?" Mrs. Williams wanted to know.

"Maybe they just couldn't deal with it," Ezra theorized.

"Maybe they wanted you to have options when they were gone," Mrs. Williams debated.

"Doesn't sound like you're all that happy in Maine," Bob volunteered.

"So what?" Jillian sighed. "I'm not all that happy here either."

Bob talked about the hardware store and how he was looking for a partner as he began the slow twilight tour into retirement. Ezra had no clue whether or not Bob was dropping hints for him to consider such an opportunity but all of this was way too much to comprehend anyway. Ezra was still trying to figure out why his grandparents held on to his parents house and why he was now sitting across the table from Jillian Williams, his long lost friend he hadn't seen in twenty-years, a fragile shadow of her former self. Ezra realized that he should have been half way back to Augusta by now but instead he was eating a piece of Mrs. Williams' apple pie for dessert.

It was easy to remember the many dinners he had at this table his sophomore year in high school when Jillian had so kindly befriended him. Those four months were the best days of his life and he hadn't realized how much they meant to him until now as he sat across from Jillian who no longer had the infectious cheerful smile and bubbly personality of that summer but still looked beautiful just the same no matter what her issues happened to be.

Ezra was beyond befuddled. How did any of this come to be? Did his grandparents foresee a reason for him to have the house available to him in Hillsboro? Could he really sell his grandparents home, quit his job, and return to the sad place where his mother violently died all those years ago? What kind of future could he and Jillian possibly have if she was indeed broken as her Dad put it? Could two people hope to pick up where they left off after a twenty-year hiatus?

With the dinner finished and dishes brought to the kitchen, Mrs. Williams told Jillian and Ezra to go relax. She and Bob could clean up.

"What are your plans for tonight?" Bob wanted to know.

"I have no idea," Ezra confessed.

"You can stay here, of course" Mrs. Williams decided.

"You're letting me have a sleep over, Mom?" Jillian said with a wry smile on her face.

"If that's what it takes, dear," Mrs. Williams replied without missing a beat.

"Are they serious?" Ezra asked with surprise as Jillian led him out of the kitchen.

"They think I'm emotionally scarred so they're willing to take any chance to help me," Jillian explained. "They threw most of the etiquette rules out the window when they had to drag me back through the window from the porch roof a while back."

"What were you doing out there?" Ezra wondered as he followed Jillian up the stairs.
"I don't remember," Jillian admitted. "Probably in some flashback or nightmare. My parents were desperate. I was sick and there wasn't much they could do about it."

Jillian stopped in front of her bedroom door and turned to face Ezra. "Do you think I've become your brother?" She worried. "Your mother was afraid to put him away and he ended up killing her."

"He was a schizophrenic," Ezra said. "Deranged. Hearing voices. Out of his mind. You have Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. It's different."

"So the feelings I have, the nightmares and flashbacks and anxiety and inability to function related to what happened to me in the Army is different from what Matt went through?"

"Yes," Ezra said softly.

She leaned against the closed door to her bedroom and looked into his eyes. "It's difficult to talk about," she sighed.

"I know."
"It hasn't been a picnic," she deadpanned.

"This isn't a deal breaker, you know," Ezra told her.

"Huh?" Jillian asked, squinting at him.

"Don't you remember?" He smiled. "You once asked me what the deal breaker in our friendship might be."

She thought about it for a moment. "Oh yeah," she grinned. "I think I asked you if you'd stick with me even if I murdered somebody."

"Only it turned out it was my brother who murdered somebody," Ezra replied.

A funny look came across Jillian's face and she stepped into him, giving him a hug.

"Maybe I can give you some motivation to help get you out of your situation," Ezra said hopefully.

"I've been going to meetings," she revealed. "At the VA hospital in Lindenberg. It's a group with other veterans in similar situations. It helps hearing others tell their stories."

"Good," Ezra said with encouragement in his voice.
"I'm slowly getting my confidence back," she said. "I'm hoping to make a slow return to normal life. Maybe do some volunteering when I'm ready. I filmed myself telling my story and maybe someday I'll upload it to YouTube or something to make it real."

"When you're ready," Ezra advised.

She opened the door to the bedroom and stepped inside, motioning for Ezra to follow. The room didn't look all that much different from when he would visit that wonderful sophomore year. Her two single beds were replaced by a double one. Her childhood posters were replaced with Army Recruiting posters and other Army advertisements. She fell onto the bed and groaned.
"I'm still battling the invisible monsters," she said, lying on her side and looking at him.

Ezra took a seat at the foot of the bed and patted the calf of her leg.
"I built my own emotional prison that became a nightmare," she said. "I'm not out of the woods yet but I'm getting there, slowly taking my life back."

"I'm glad."

"Seeing you again so unexpectedly reminds me of who I used to be and who I can be again with some hard work and patience."
"Do you think my grandparents kept my mother's house for a reason?" Ezra asked.
"I don't know," Jillian answered truthfully. "But if that's the reason you came back I'm not complaining."

"I never thought I'd find you here," Ezra said. "I was certain you were long gone, off saving the world, doing important things. I wasn't sure if you'd even remember me."

"How could I possibly forget you, E?" Jillian wanted to know. "I've been faking it until I make it for a long time now hoping things might get better, praying for a miracle. When I saw you standing there with Daddy I figured my prayers had been answered. The only thing that kept me going all this time was my parents and a dream."

"What dream?"

"I often think about when things seemed perfect in my life and I was very happy," she said.

"When was that?" Ezra wondered.

"Last part of Sophomore year and the summer that followed," she said quietly.

"Me too," Ezra told her.

Jillian sucked in her breath. "I saw my last serious boyfriend get blown to bits over there," she revealed.

"No wonder you have PTSD," Ezra remarked, swallowing hard.

"It's the worse of the invisible monsters," Jillian admitted. "But I'm really trying hard not to think of nightmares and remember sweet dreams instead."

"You were always the strongest person of character I knew," Ezra said. "I know you can get through this."

"Did you get through what happened to your Mom?"
"Slowly," Ezra replied, falling back on the bed so he was lying next to her. Jillian was still lying on her side, her head propped up by her elbow. "I guess I know how to take on invisible monsters," Ezra remarked. "Maybe I can help you with yours."

"That would be nice," she smiled. "I'll give them your address!"

"Scars are often invisible too," Ezra pointed out. "I had plenty of them when we hung out. Still do."

"My flashbacks haunt me, the anger scares me, the depression saddens me and I'm tired of having these feelings of worthlessness," Jillian sighed.

"You are very worthy," Ezra assured her. "Thanks for being courageous enough to be honest. I really admire you and you are a heroine in every sense of the word."

Tears formed in Jillian's eyes as she stared at Ezra. "You need to be aware that I often wake up in the middle of the night crying without knowing why except that I often feel like I'm in danger," she said. "I don't expect you to understand when I don't even understand myself."

"I still have weird dreams about my mother and brother too," Ezra revealed.

"I'm basically avoiding the world and people because I just want to be left alone," Jillian stated forcefully. "Sometimes I don't even want to be touched. I have internal wounds that will probably never completely heal. It can be overwhelming sometimes and it gets me angry. I'm different from when you knew me."

"Me too," Ezra said.

"It's strange," Jillian said, falling back on the mattress on her back next to Ezra, both of them staring at the ceiling. "I survived near-daily bombings. Saw death, blood and destruction everywhere. I didn't puke picking through the pockets of dead buddies searching for an ID. But now I feel panicked walking through the aisles of Fontaine's Family Grocery Store and I break out in sweats inside a movie theatre. That's why I just don't go out much."

Ezra listened to her talk and although what she was saying was painful he loved hearing the sound of her voice again after missing it for so long.

"We went for a ride a few weeks ago and Daddy pulled the car into a rest area so I could use the facilities," Jillian continued. "For whatever reason, I went into a panic in the stall. I couldn't breathe, I started shaking, I almost fell off the commode. Don't ask me why I suddenly get so overwhelmed by anxiety and break down in tears without warning. Sometimes I just totally lose it. I just break down. It's like I'm stuck in this weird world with the invisible monsters."

"What about before the wars?" Ezra asked.
"I'm proud of my military service," Jillian answered. "I loved the camaraderie of the military, the travel, and the adventure. Even when I was deployed into a war zone for the first time I saw it as my duty, my responsibility and I approached it fearlessly. I still miss it but my mind is going a thousand different directions and I'm a mess. I sit with my back to the wall when I'm in a restaurant. I can't stand to have people behind me. I nearly beat the crap out of my father one night when I bumped into him in the hallway."

"It's going to get better," Ezra predicted.

"It already has," Jillian replied, taking his hand in hers. "But I'll never be like I was," she sighed.

Neither of them said anything for a period of time. Ezra liked listening to the sound of Jillian's breathing. It was such a peaceful sound. He glanced around the room and noticed several CDs and DVDs lying around, as well as countless books.

"It's what I do, E," Jillian explained. "Hole up in here watching movies and reading, listening to music. My great escape. Mostly crap. Drivel. Comedy. Romance novels. Anything to help me keep my mind off tough stuff although I find that anything can trigger me so it doesn't matter what I read or what I watch." She rolled over on the bed and picked a book up off the foor. "Do you remember Mrs. McCallister from our report sophomore year?"

"A nice lady," Ezra smiled.

"I came across this book and thought of her," she said, handing Ezra a paperback called The Girls of Atomic City (The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II) by Denise Kiernan. A Newspaper review clipping fell out of the book and landed on Ezra's stomach. He picked it up and read it:

As most of us are all too aware, the generation who fought in World War II or supported the effort from home are leaving us - their children, grandchildren, and greats - to carry on without them. Thanks to author Kiernan, we hear from a group of that generation's women, now in their eighties and nineties, whose wartime experience matched no one else's. Ever. Anywhere.

Between 1943 and 1945, these women left home or existing jobs to take unknown jobs in the newly constructed, secretive, and increasingly crowded town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. "[The women were] told that their new jobs served one purpose only: to bring a speedy and victorious end to the war. That was enough for [them]." They worked hard for some two years before learning what they were really working on. When the U. S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, they finally knew what their contribution was to the war effort.

The book takes an approach reminiscent of that taken by the military overseers of the town of Oak Ridge and the Manhattan Project. That approach is to compartmentalize information. Unlike what the Oak Ridge workers experienced, however, the book's readers are privy to a far wider range of compartmentalized information all along the way, giving us a 360-degree vision of the overall project, not just limited to Oak Ridge and not just limited to the women

The book first provides brief-bio lists of the people, places, and things that will be key to the narrative; then a map of the town of Oak Ridge - showing the locations of the four uranium-enriching plants and the seven guarded gates, the only ways on and off "the Reservation," as the town was often called; and then chronologically detailing in alternating chapters the experience of regular people - as part of the rapidly growing, government-run city of Oak Ridge - and the inexorable advance of scientific knowledge bent toward winning World War II.

Kiernan weaves the true experiences of Oak Ridge workers (represented by those still living to share memories directly) with all aspects of the city's rapid development. The city was originally planned to have 13,000 residents, but that plan was scrapped and increasingly higher numbers were planned. By the fall of 1943 the plan was for 42,000 residents. In 1945 the number peaked at 75,000 residents.

The book emphasizes the mud everywhere, since sidewalks couldn't be created fast enough, and the speed with which housing went up. "At the height of construction, new [prefab] homes were erected as quickly as one per every thirty minutes." The total land taken over by the government eventually came to over 90 square miles, much of it used by the four uranium-enriching plants and the rest of it used by the townspeople who serviced the plants (while ignorant about the nature of their work) or the hospitals and cafeterias and so on servicing the people. The average age at Oak Ridge was 27.

It is mindboggling how much was accomplished how fast, especially in light of the unpredictability of any human endeavor but this one multiplied by so many assignments, people, and numbers needed to get to the lesser and finally the greater goals. Even as all the Project work was getting done, people's lives were being lived. "Women infused the job site with life, their presence effortlessly defying all attempts to control and plan and shape every aspect of day-to-day existence at Oak Ridge. The Project may not have known what was to become of the town after the war, but the women knew that while they were there, they would not only work as hard as the men, but they would make it home."

Many people know very little about the development of the atomic bomb, despite the fact that nuclear weapons and nuclear energy play a significant role in our lives and our world. Whether or not you agree with the outcome, the tremendous amount that the Manhattan Project accomplished in such a short amount of time - just under three years [from initial groundbreaking] - is astonishing. The phrase "Manhattan Project" remains synonymous with an all-out effort. We need a Manhattan Project for various issues with that kind of determination, effort, and, not to mention, financial and political support. What if the kind of money, manpower, and resources that went into the Manhattan Project went to the fight against hunger? Alzheimer's? Homelessness?

"We should go to the high school and watch those videos we made," Ezra said, stuffing the review back into the book. "It would be interesting to see those five people again and hear what they said, especially Mrs. McCallister. I remember her being pretty humble."

"They were all humble," Jillian said. "I think that's a great idea. Nobody talked about PSTD from that era. It's really a Vietnam War phenomenon. The Greatest Generation of my grandfather's world just didn't talk about what they saw and did. They came back from saving the world and got on with their lives. Maybe that's what I need to do," she said, deep in thought.

"You are doing that," Ezra said. "Only at a slower pace. You'll get there."

"Are you okay being here like this, E?" Jillian asked after a few quiet moments.

"Are you okay having me here?"

"It's been a long time since I shared a bed with anybody," she admitted.

"Maybe being alone isn't all its cracked up to be," Ezra joked.

Jillian laughed as she rolled onto her side and squeezed agaisnt him. "If I freak out, don't you freak out," she pleaded.

"Promise," he said quietly. "I have some experience in this."

"Have you forgiven your brother for what he did?" Jillian wondered.

"He wasn't in his right mind," Ezra said with a sigh. "I had to forgive if I had any hope of moving past it."

"What kind of dreams do you have?" She asked. "Good ones?"

"Sometimes," he said. "Early stuff is nice stuff. Going to Red's Tastee Freeze with Matt and my parents. Riding our bikes on our street. Stuff like that."

"And the bad ones?"

"I never saw the murder scene but the cops told me about some of it so sometimes I have bloody dreams. My mother is screaming and my deranged brother is laughing crazily like in those stupid horror movies. I don't have them as often as I used to but occasionally they happen. Lately, I've been having dreams about my grandparents. Missing them, I guess. And once I found out about the house here, I started having more dreams about you."

"Really?"

Ezra shrugged. "I guess I started thinking about that wonderful summer all over again."

"I've been seriously thinking that I should do a few hours at the Stone Mansion House," Jillian giggled. "Mrs. Montgomery died several years ago but they still do the volunteering there."

"Sounds like a good idea," Ezra said.

"I'm just afraid I might have a panic or anxiety attack while I'm there."

"Maybe I should volunteer with you," Ezra said.

"Kind of hard to do that from Maine, E," Jillian said, rolling her eyes.

"Yeah," he agreed. "Maine seems so far away, doesn't it?"

She didn't answer.

"I had to go away," Ezra said quietly after an awkward pause. "You understand that, don't you? It was a scandal. I already had my invisible monsters before that happened. Can you imagine what it would have been like for me if I stayed?"

"I know," Jillian sighed. "But I missed you just the same."

"I was more alone then ever," Ezra sighed. "I missed you terribly."

"I'm sorry your marriage didn't work out," Jillian said with sincerity. "What was her name?"

"Lena," Ezra replied. "She was my first real girlfriend….."

He saw Jillian pouting and he smirked. "Not counting you, of course."

She smiled. "Thank you."

"I was so desperate for companionship and so flattered that she was interested that I went in with blinders on," he confessed. "And of course what Lena said about me was true. I had my invisible monsters she couldn't see or understand or deal with and she eventually decided that's not what she wanted in a marriage which was fine but she played hard ball, resentful and bitter and it was a messy divorce. My grandfather died around the same time which only made it worse."

"I'm sorry," Jillian said.

Ezra knew he wouldn't be lying on the same bed next to Jillian if he was still married, of course, but he wasn't going to bring that small detail up with her. He wondered how many lovers she had besides the guy who got blown up but it didn't matter to him anyway. He realized that he had slayed one more invisible monster by being here with her now.

"Did you keep on volunteering at the Stone Mansion House after…" Ezra asked.

"Yeah, my parents let me finish the summer alone and the next year I convinced my friend April to do it with me," Jillian said with a warm smile. "It wasn't the same without you though, of course."

Ezra smiled, glad that he had been missed.

The sound of the air conditioner was lulling and relaxing and when Jillian didn't speak for a while Ezra glanced down and saw that she was asleep. He kicked off his sneakers but stayed in his clothes, closing his eyes and falling into a peaceful sleep. When he awoke later, the lights were out and there was a light blanket over him. Jillian must have gotten up but she was back on the bed next to him now, still dressed in her shorts and ARMY tee shirt, nestled into his side. For this moment, all seemed well with the world.

When Ezra awoke in the morning he was happy to see Jillian still in the bed next to him. She opened her eyes when he moved and for a moment she seemed startled and confused, physically moving back in the bed until she remembered where she was and who she was with and what was going on.

"Oh wow!" Jillian said with amazement, sitting up on the bed and staring at Ezra with appreciation as he sat up too. "I can't tell you the last time I had such a restful, easy, peaceful sleep." She was full of disbelief. "Usually I wake up every few hours. Sometimes I roam the house. Other times I just weep myself back to sleep. This morning? I feel like I've been asleep for a week!"

Ezra grinned with relief. "Well, good morning," he said happily.

"It really is!" She marvelled giving him a hug. "Thank you, E!"

Jillian hopped out of bed with enthusiasm and went into the bathroom. Ezra called in sick to work and sat on the edge of the bed trying to figure out what he was supposed to do with the rest of his life. Did he belong in Augusta or Hillsboro?

When Jillian finsihed with the bathroom, Ezra did what he needed to do and washed up, felling slightly grubby for wearing the same clothes but he honestly thought he was going to return to Maine the previous night with no reason to stay. Everything was moving so fast he felt like he was caught in a Star Trek warp drive.

He and Jillian had coffee and danish with Jillian's parents. Then Ezra drove Jillian to the high school which was open for summer hours and summer school. The library had converted most of its taped library to digital access and they found their report on the computer, including the video of the five interviewees. It was wild to see Uncle Jimmy and Jillian's grandfather alive again, as well as the other three, including the perky Mrs. McCallister talking about her time as an Atomic City Girl.

"I think they're all dead now," Jillian realized sadly.

"Well, we did this twenty years ago talking about something that happened nearly fifty years before that," Ezra pointed out.

It was fascinating to see young Jilliian on the computer screen – Ezra had made it a point to pan the camera onto Jillian several times when she was asking a question or to get her reaction to something one of the interviewees was saying..

"God, what a geek I am!" Jillian moaned the first time she saw herself on the computer screen.

"You're cute and bubbly," Ezra laughed, memorized by her image. "Just the way I remember you."

"That girl is long gone, E," Jillian warned. "Man, some of the questions seem lame now," she admitted.

"We were fifteen," Ezra replied. "They're fine."

When they were done watching the report, they drove to the Old Stone Mansion House for old times sake. The place hadn't changed much except that a college intern was running it (instead of Mrs. Montgomery) and the volunteers on this day were two retirees in their seventies. Ezra and Jillian toured the mansion and told the intern and volunteers that they had once been part of the group twenty years earlier.

Afterward, they took a nostalgic and sentimental walk along the bike path reminiscing about the project. Jillian was hung up on the ability of those five remarkable individuals to tell their stories and recall their realities "without going crazy, jumping out a window, or threatening to kill one of us".

"Oh god," Jillian wailed. "What is wrong with me?"

"You lived in and through a different reality," Ezra told her. "The world was on the brink back then. People did what they had to do to survive and save civilization and the American way of life. Everybody in the country was affected in one way or another. You were among the less than one percent of the population who served in Iraq and Afganastan. Nobody paid attention. You were deployed countless times. You were asked to do unthinkable things. You were abused, really. Of course you were affected. How could you not be?"

"Not everybody who serves gets PTSD, E," she sighed.

"Not everybody who serves saw what you saw and did what you did," Ezra argued. "Give yourself a break."

They had lunch at Johnny C's Diner which is when Ezra figured out that Johnny C had sold the diner to a guy named Birdy Braft, who was married to his real estate agent. He wondered if he should call her right now and tell her he changed his mind. Had he changed his mind? Was Hillsboro where he belonged?

They went back to Jillian's house. It was a warm summer afternoon and she took him into the back yard. The pool he remembered had been replaced with a newer larger above ground pool with a new deck built right from the house to the pool.

"Do you remember the last time you were here?" Jillian asked as they stood on the deck warming in the sun.

"We took a swim," he said. "I think you were going to kiss me in the water but your mother came home."

"Oh, I was going to do more than kiss you, E," Jillian informed him with a seductive grin.

He blushed but didn't say anything.

"Do you remember what I said when we heard my mom's car?" She asked.

"Next time," he whispered.

She nodded her head, impressed that he remembered. "Well, guess what?" She stated knowingly. "It's next time now."

Jillian unbuttoned the blouse she was wearing and tossed it aside. She was standing topless on the deck now and Ezra nervously looked around.

"Nobody can see," she laughed, unsnapping her shorts and wiggling them down her legs, followed by her panties.

She was naked and she turned her back to him and carefully climbed down the ladder into the pool. He remembered the first (and only) time he saw her bare backside and now here he was again admiring it with appreciation and satisfaction.

"You going to join me?" Jillian asked as she floated on her back, watching him gawk at her.

Ezra undressed and did a naked shallow dive into the pool, causing Jillian to scream as she flipped over and swam to the edge of the deck, turning to face him, her arms holding onto the deck above her head, exposing her breasts to him above the water line.

"I've waited twenty years for next time, E," Jillian said calmly.

Ezra swam to her and, squatting so their faces were lined up, he kissed her just like she had planned to kiss him on that day so long ago – both the best and worse day of Ezra's life.

Jillian wrapped her legs around Ezra's hips and pulled him closer to her. They made love in the water under the sun and when it was over they dressed so not to be discovered by Mrs. Williams when she came home and they happily sat on the deck chairs, both of them delerious and dizzy from what had just taken place between them.

"Have you ever been to Maine?" Ezra asked.

"Not Augusta," Jillian replied.

"Come with me for a few weeks," he said.

"What for?"

"I'll put my grandparents house on the market and quit my job," he said.

"And do what?" Jillian asked, glancing at him with wanting eyes.

"Move back into my old house and go back to work for your father," he said.

"And what are you going to do when I'm being chased by my invisible monsters?" She sighed.

"I'll be running by your side," Ezra answered.