Item 19: The Beginning
Jade woke up from vague, disturbing dreams and felt acutely disoriented upon opening her eyes to a sunlit hospital room, rather than the cold, stony, orange-tinged world she'd gotten used to.
At the side of her bed, between her and the warm sunlight streaming in between the curtains, was Benjamin.
"What time is it?" she wondered groggily.
"One in the afternoon. I thought you'd never wake up."
She forced herself to sit up in spite of the deep ache throughout her body. She felt horrible in ways she couldn't pinpoint. She felt like if she looked out the window, instead of the warm, safe world, she'd find a distorted hellscape. She felt like the world was ending. Like her soul had collapsed.
"Where is everyone?" she asked, unable at the moment to remember who exactly she was talking about.
"Kir and that inspector guy were here this morning, but then Kir said something about a nurse and they left. They seemed kind of worried about something. Apparently you're not supposed to talk to me because it's all classified."
Jade was perfectly willing to accept that. She had no desire to try to explain what she'd been through.
"How do you feel?" Benjamin asked almost tenderly.
"Terrible, like I overslept for days."
"Yeah, you seem kind of out of it."
"What's so funny?"
"Nothing. Just...out of what?"
"Do you want some coffee or something?" he asked.
"Coffee would be great."
When Benjamin left, Jade decided to take a quick shower. She felt grimy, and for some reason her skin smelled of a mix of garlic and rose.
When Benjamin went to the snack room down the hall to get some coffee, he found Declan.
"Hey," he greeted him. "She woke up."
"Did she say anything?" Declan asked, pouring himself a cup of coffee.
"I think she's pretty foggy from whatever meds they've got her on."
Declan raised his eyebrows, then looked down. "I'm sure she is."
"Hey, you said before that you wanted to talk to me about something?"
"Yeh." He glanced out the door to make sure there was no one close enough to overhear. "When Jade was... When it got bad, she said a name. Does the name 'Stefan' mean anything to you?"
Benjamin tensed. "She said that name?"
"Yes. She sounded like... It was obviously someone who meant a lot to her."
"You wouldn't know it, the way she acts."
"Was he your son?"
"Yes," Benjamin replied. "Stefan was our son. He was one and a half when he died of HEI. And honestly, I'm surprised Jade mentioned him. She never talks about him. She put all his pictures in a box and never looks at them. She refuses to even try for another baby. It's like she wants to pretend he never existed."
"She would give her life to bring him back."
"You know what? So would I."
Declan almost spilled his coffee. He wasn't sure whose life Benjamin meant and was trying to take it in the best way possible, but that was not the response he'd anticipated.
Benjamin took two cups of coffee and headed back toward Jade's hospital room. Declan followed him.
Jade was standing at the window looking down at the lawn and the street below. Her hair was wet from a quick shower.
She turned to take the cup of coffee her husband handed her. "Thanks Benjamin." She looked at Declan over her shoulder. "Inspector Coffey."
"You're looking much better, Detective Marquez."
"Then I can't imagine how terrible I looked before, because I feel like hell." She sipped her coffee tentatively.
"And you look like hell, but it's a definite improvement."
She smiled at that. It only lasted a second. "We need to talk."
Jade glanced at Benjamin.
"Loud and clear," he said, and left the room.
With a few paces, Declan joined Jade at the window. "Your sketches were stolen."
"This morning. They were taken by a woman posing as a nurse. The hospital has no record of her, but her uniform was impeccable right down to the access badge, which was apparently stolen last night. We have images of her from security cameras, and Central is working on IDing her, but right now we have no idea who she is or why she stole your sketchbook. What was in it?"
"Just things I saw," she said, befuddled. "Images, memories. Things that don't make sense. I can't think how it would be useful to anyone. There was nothing about the machines."
Declan nodded, frowning. He couldn't think why someone would want those sketches either, or know to look for them. Unless the woman had come for some other reason and just happened upon the sketchbook.
"I'm sure I don't have to tell you how important it is to keep the existence of that place a secret. Since it was first discovered, there have been people trying to use it as a weapon."
"You don't have to worry about me talking," she said. "I don't want to sound crazy."
"You're not. I hope you know that."
She shook her head. "I feel like it. Everything's so confused. My memories are so jumbled. I don't know what was real or what I dreamed or hallucinated... The things I saw, the things that...happened, how much of that was real?"
He thought for a moment. "That dimension," he answered carefully, "is entirely outside our normal experience. Our brains can't process it. Don't think of it in terms of real or unreal. Think of it as that everything you saw was something, but none of it was what it seemed. Your son wasn't there," he added in a whisper. "Whatever that was, it wasn't your son."
Her eyes flinched away.
He didn't know what else he could say. "Get some rest, get some food. You'll feel better," he concluded, heading for the door.
"Declan," she said, stopping him.
He turned back. "Yeh?"
Her arms were crossed protectively and her shoulders were hunched. The hospital gown hung from her skeletal frame, and something in her face seemed to still be in shadow.
"After everything we've been through together the past few days, with how well we've gotten to know each other," she glanced toward him sharply, "what makes you think for a second I would believe you?"
He smiled tightly. "It's nice to see you back to your old self again," he said before walking out.
The news article scrolled across the phone screen, unrolling with the movement of her eyes.
The Central Investigation Authority confirmed this morning the man suspected of murdering five people in the Buffalo area since November died in a confrontation with Buffalo PD officers.
The CIA has not released the name of the suspect. When reached for comment, lead CIA agent on the investigation Declan Coffey said the death of the perpetrator is still under review, and that a number of open missing-person cases may be connected to the killer.
Her thin lips bent into a smile.
"Declan Coffey," she said slowly, as if tasting the name.
She looked at herself in the wall mirror. Her long brown hair seemed black in the twilight from the curtained window. Her dark eyes gleamed with the light from the phone's screen. Her smile drifted away gently, replaced by a look of somber contemplation.
She quoted a poem by Carl Sandburg to her reflection:
"What was the name you called me?—
And why did you go so soon?
The crows lift their caw on the wind,
And the wind changed and was lonely.
The warblers cry their sleepy-songs
Across the valley gloaming,
Across the cattle-horns of early stars.
Feathers and people in the crotch of a treetop
Throw an evening waterfall of sleepy-songs.
What was the name you called me?—
And why did you go so soon?"
She turned away from the mirror and looked back at the phone. The article ended with a list of the names of the known victims: Rodney Adams, Hektor Khan, Keate Perez, Taylor Shaw, Carla Weston.
"They sent Hektor? Poor kid."
She drifted away from the mirror, away from the phone, and looked out the window.
"Jade Marquez, Kir Lebedev, Declan Coffey," she mused. "I hope you realize this isn't over."