After Anne had left the hospital to retrieve the car, Kristine called once again, informing her that the earliest flight she could book was at ten in the morning eastern time. If the plane left and arrived on time and with the time difference and the added drive after renting a car, Kristine estimated she would be at their doorstep around three in the afternoon the next day. Anne knew there was little Kristine could do but listen to both of them as they spilled their guts over the events of the last few days, of course leaving out the one detail Preston had said could not be shared, though she knew Kristine would not have the full picture in order to completely understand without it. The three of them could have done that over the phone or computer just as easily, and Anne hated to feel as if she was putting anyone to any trouble, but she knew there was no talking Kristine out of it once her mind was made up. Anne also was in some ways glad that she would be there in person, which was always better.
Though the move to Nevada had been just slightly over a year prior, she and Preston had not collected a wide circle of friends. They had acquaintances, friendly neighbors that would wave when they saw them or ask a simple 'how are you' but that was about the extent of it. Now that she knew Preston's secret, she understood why he, a man who usually attracted people like moths to a flame, had not seemed especially keen on making any close associations there. Anne, as was the case everywhere else she'd ever lived, seemed to be of no interest to most, though she was pleased that she had sold quite a number of paintings since she had opened her gallery six months earlier, more than she had expected. It wasn't about the money, Preston was paid more than enough to keep the rent paid and the lights on each month even if she hadn't sold a single piece, but it was motivating and satisfying to know her work was to hang in someone's home or office to be admired. As she had told Preston, her aim with her paintings was to put more beauty out into a world of so much ugliness.
Parking the car in the lane designated for patient pick up, Anne had returned to Preston's room. They had already delivered the discharge papers to Preston, he signing them while he awaited Anne's return, leaving them on the bed instead of waiting for the nurse to return for them so that they were able to sneak out of the emergency ward before he was forced to follow the protocol of being wheeled to the curb as if he were an invalid. The only time Preston ever planned on being wheeled out of a hospital was after he was dead and the mortician collected his body. Before that day arrived he had every intention of walking out of them.
Anne now sat behind the wheel, driving home from the hospital with Preston in the passenger seat, glancing over at him every now and then as he sat still and silent, staring out at the road ahead of them appearing to be in deep contemplation. So deep in thought was he that she had feared perhaps he was reentering the same catatonic state that she had witnessed before his earlier collapse. Removing her right hand from the steering wheel, she gently placed it on his left shoulder.
"You still with me?" she asked, concerned.
"Yeah…just thinking." Preston replied in a soft, distant voice.
"Just making sure. You look like you're a million miles away. What are you thinking about?" Anne asked as they passed through the commercial section of the city. It was the middle of the afternoon, after most people's lunch breaks and before the typical timeframe that people ended their work day so traffic was not too heavy, for which Anne was glad. She hated driving on busy, congested streets. She absolutely loathed driving in major cities. The city in which they lived was no metropolis like New York or Chicago, but it wasn't exactly a "small town' either, something in between.
"A lot of things." he answered.
"It's been quite a day and it's not even halfway over." Anne said as she peered over at him once again. Preston had moved his gaze from the windshield down to his hands in his lap as he appeared to be fiddling with his wedding band, turning it on his finger. She thought he looked a bit pale. "So pick one and tell me about it." Anne told him.
"Not now." Preston replied.
"Talk to me. What's-" Anne began.
"I said not now!" Preston exclaimed angrily, regretting it the moment the words had left his mouth as he looked over to Anne, her eyes having returned to the windshield and the road past it and he observed the shock mixed with hurt in her expression. She hated it when anyone raised their voice around her, for anyone to speak to her with even a hint of anger. He well knew the reason, how it triggered painful and traumatic memories. In the last six years they'd been together he'd had very little reason to be angry with her. The few times he had been he had done his best to temper it due to that knowledge. He returned his attention to the ring on his finger.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped at you. I will...just not now." Alan said in a much calmer, even tone as he ceased turning the ring on his finger and put his left hand out, resting it on her thigh. As he did so, he sensed her muscles, which had instantly tensed in a sort of preparation for a fight or flight response at his outburst, relaxing.
"No,I'm sorry. I know if you want to talk about something you'll do it in your own time. I'll make a late lunch when we get home. I'm starving. What are you hungry for?" she asked.
"I'm not sure." he replied. He thought of the book his mother had given him in his vision, the taste of it, sickeningly sweet, and the sour, bitter feeling it had left in his stomach.
"You need to eat something. You have to keep your strength up."
"I'm not choosy at the moment.." Preston answered, "...nothing sweet." he added.
"Sweet? What would I make for lunch that would be sweet? It's not as if I'd bake a cake. Actually, that sounds good. When I was a kid, there was this little mom and pop bakery in town, only a few blocks from my house. I can still remember how good it smelled inside, even just walking by. They sold chocolate cakes for $5. They were soooo good. Every once in a while, Craig would give me $5 to walk there and buy one and bring it home for dessert. I haven't thought about that in years. I wonder if they're still in business. Even if they are I doubt they're $5 anymore. I wish I had one now. Maybe it's my first craving. At least it's nothing weird."
"I suspect chocolate in any form is a rather popular one. If you want to hear strange...my mother once told me when she-" Preston began before cutting himself off as his voice suddenly broke with emotion. Anne looked over at him once again, his hand to his mouth having withdrawn his other from her, the anguish and tears he was fighting a pitched battle to hold back evident in his eyes. Noticing the turn into the parking lot of a strip mall anchored by a larger department store coming up on the right, Anne turned into it, finding a parking spot at the back of the the car, Anne removed her seat belt and exited the car, walking around it to the passenger side, opening the door.
"Scooch…" she said to Preston. Preston moved his hand from his mouth, moving over in the seat towards the driver's side a few inches.
Anne sat on the edge of the passenger seat, her feet outside the car on the concrete, turning her torso towards Preston, taking his face in her hands and giving him a gentle, reassuring smile before kissing him followed by her wrapping her arms around him, he returning the embrace.
"It's alright. Your mother, she's the someone else you were talking about."
"You and I were talking and then I saw her standing behind you, a little further up the trail...I went to her...she was wearing the same nightdress…"
"That's what you were seeing before you passed out. Did she say anything?"
"She warned me to beware wolves in sheep's clothing, false prophets,...some of it was bible verses, but she was never religious. I don't recall whether we even had a gave me a book. It had names written in it. I don't know whose. She said I looked like my father. She said there are darknesses and I was one of the lights…it was a quote she used to say to me..."
"The light of all lights." Anne finished this time.
"You know it."
"Of course I know it. It's my favorite line in the whole book. I always thought it one of the most beautiful ever written. In the middle of a book about monsters and blood and death, there was that beautiful line." Anne paused for a moment, still holding Preston in her arms. "You've always been a light to me. All my life was darkness and then you came into it. Do you think it was some sort of seizure dream?"
"Maybe I'm just going mad. I don't know anymore."
"You're not-" Anne began to say before both she and Preston heard running steps approaching them on the passenger side of the car and a crazed, frantic voice calling out.
"He is coming with the clouds and every eye will behold him! The powers of the heavens will be shaken! There will not be left one stone on another that will not be thrown down! Raise your heads for your redemption is near!" A man in jeans and a black t-shirt appeared at the open door, reaching out and taking hold of Anne's upper arm, pulling her from the car and flinging her away from him onto the concrete.
"Anne! What the hell?!" Preston exclaimed, swiftly exiting the car. The crazed man's arms shot out, wrapping his hands around Preston's neck, squeezing.
"They went down alive into Sheol and the earth closed over them and they perished! The man of lawlessness must come!" the man cried.
Preston, choking under the man's grip, raised both of his arms and drove his elbows into the shoulders of the madman before bringing his knee up to the crotch of the man's jeans. As he released Preston, Preston punched the man in the face as he was beginning to bend over, cupping his hands over his privates in pain. The man flew back onto the surface of the parking lot, lying on his back, his eyes staring wide and blankly up at the sky, his mouth hanging open, silent and motionless. Preston quickly moved to Anne's side, assisting her to rise as she had already begun to pick herself up off the ground.
"Are you alright?" Preston asked, aghast at what had just taken place, again reminded it was not just Anne and her wellbeing he had to concern himself with. Anne nodded, appearing somewhat in a daze after the unexpected encounter. She looked over at the man who lay in the same position, unmoving. She stepped towards him. "Anne...no, wait-"
Anne, ignoring Preston, stood beside the man. Crouching down, Preston quickly coming up alongside her, she placed her fingers on the man's neck, checking for a pulse.
"Oh my god. I...I think he's dead." Anne said in astonishment, turning her head and looking up at Preston. Preston looked towards the parking lot at the people who had stopped what they were doing and were staring in their direction.
"I didn't hit him that hard."
"Should we do CPR? Maybe he's still-"
"No...fuck the sorry bastard." Preston said, looking down at the dead man with loathing.
"Maybe he was on drugs. He was in some kind of frenzy. Maybe his heart gave out. It was self defense. They have cameras on the lot, I'm sure it's all on tape."
A man wearing a red polo shirt embroidered on the upper chest with the logo of the department store came running towards them, or more like jogging as his gut would preclude anything more strenuous, He looked down at the man on the ground.
"What's going on? I'd just kicked him out of the store. He was ranting and raving 'the end is nigh' bullshit and scaring everyone."
"He attacked us. I gave him a right good knee to the goolies and a punch in the face in case he still didn't get the message. He's dead. At least we think so. A heart attack, maybe a stroke or something like that." Preston told the employee who he assumed was a member of the store's security detail. The employee pulled a phone from his back pocket.
"Sit tight. I'm sure the police will want to talk to you. They probably won't keep you long. I'll get on the radio and have security call up the last few minutes of the surveillance video from the cameras in this section so it'll be ready to go when they get here." The man told them before making a call to 911 and speaking to the dispatcher.
"Jesus Christ...what a day…" Anne breathed, clearly shaken after the experience. Preston put an arm around her, leading her to sit in the passenger seat of the car where he had originally been sitting. She stared past him at the corpse of their attacker. "He was going to strangle you! I was about to grab the lug wrench from the trunk and bash his head in!"
"You're sure you're alright?" Preston said, looking down at her with concern. Anne glanced at the slight scrapes on her forearm.
"I'll be fine. Just stings a little…."
"I know a fall can-" Preston began to say. Before he could finish, Anne reached out, taking Preston's hand and looked up at him with a reassuring smile.
"I'm ok, really. Is this what I have to look forward to for the next eight months? Maybe I should get my doctor to write you a script for Xanax or something until it's all over." Anne joked.
"If there's going to be any more days like today, it may not be a bad idea." Preston replied.
"At least we'll have a story to tell him or her when they're older." Anne said then grew quiet as she realized it would be her telling all the stories. By the time their son or daughter was old enough to hear it, Preston would almost certainly be gone. Pushing the thought from her mind, she stood up, wrapping her arms around Preston's waist as the sound of sirens drew closer. "Well, you got to do some James Bond shit after all."
Five men stepped out of the last exit chamber in the requisite olive green shorts and t-shirts after their journey into the rift, one of them a blond haired man, his hair almost a frosty white. Colonel Crewson stood a few yards away as four of the five men, including the blond man who brought up the rear of the party, made their way to the gurneys behind the rows of blue curtains. The man that had led them out headed in Crewson's direction instead.
"Osmond...the new guy, Talbot….how'd he do….you think he's ready?" Crewson asked.
"As ready as he's ever going to be." Osmond answered. "He's an able soldier, got good instincts. We didn't run into much today to really test him but I think he'll do ok. He's a bit of an odd duck though. One of those religious freaks. Sounds like that guy on TV everyone's gone nuts over lately."
"I'll have a talk with him tomorrow. Tell him to tone that shit down. No one wants to listen to that in there...out here either, but definitely not in there." Crewson said.
"Probably a good idea."
"I'll let you get on with it then. Pleasant dreams, Osmond."
"Thank you, sir." Osmond said, turning and beginning to walk towards the blue curtains before he turned back. "The batteries were almost dead by the time we got to 'em. They're going even faster now. It's like something in there's sucking them dry almost as fast as we can change 'em out." Osmond turned again and made his way towards the curtains and his day long enforced nap. Crewson turned away, heading back towards the entrance to the corridor and his office looking troubled.
Behind the screens, Talbot, the blond haired man, lay on the gurney as a medic inserted an IV before placing the various electrodes on his head and chest. Talbot closed his eyes.
"May it be your will, my god and god of my ancestors, grant me light so that I do not sleep the sleep of death." Talbot murmured in quiet prayer.
The body of the crazed man having been removed from the site, the other emergency personnel and police having left the scene, one officer remained, speaking with Preston and Anne.
"I've got your statements and information. I think that's all I seeing the video, it looks pretty cut and dried. He must have been on something. They'll run a tox screen on him I'm sure. Had two other similar cases over the last couple weeks. Looneys spouting off about god, the second coming, the end of the world, that kind of shit. Starting to wonder if there's not some new drug out there people are getting ahold of or maybe it's just that nut job on TV making the nuts nuttier."
"What nut job? We don't watch much TV." Anne asked.
"Oh, some guy, must be a rich guy, bought air time the last few Sundays on all the networks. Talks the same kind of nonsense. Revelations type stuff, the Apocalypse, the four horsemen, all that shit. Of course he makes it all sound mystical and spooky. You never actually see him, he's shadowed like they do people they interview that want to stay anonymous. That just makes people more curious." the officer told them.
"Probably buddies with the welcome wagon outside the clinic." Anne said to Preston.
"Anyway, I'll let you folks get on with your day. Hope the rest of it's better." the officer said, handing Preston a card. "Here's my card if you need to contact me."
"Thank you." Preston said, moving the card to his left hand and putting it into his pocket. The officer walked to his vehicle, getting in driving away.
Anne walked around their car to the driver's side, Preston getting back into the passenger seat. Anne started the car, driving a short distance through the parking lot by the businesses in the strip mall, pulling into another parking space.
"I'll only be a couple minutes. Stay here and relax. Just try not to get attacked by any other crazies while I'm gone." Anne said.
"I'll do my are you going?" Preston asked, wary after their experience of allowing Anne to leave the car alone.
"I spied it while we were talking to the police. Synchronicity, I guess." Anne said with a smile as she opened her car door. Preston watched her after she had closed it walk towards one of the businesses. The sign above it read 'Pam's Pastries and Cakes.' There was a grand opening sign in the window.
As Preston awaited Anne's return he looked down once again at the ring on his finger. He had just killed a man, unintentionally to be sure, and clearly in self defense...if it hadn't been, he would be sitting in the back of a police car now headed to a holding cell, not waiting for Anne in his own vehicle outside a bakery. It was extremely unlikely it had been his assault alone upon his attacker that had ended the man's life. He knew he had killed people years ago in Afghanistan, though that had also been self defense...it was war which followed a wholly different set of rules than everyday civilian life during peacetime or at least outside the warzone.
Preston thought of how the man that had lay dead before them in the parking lot had been someone's son...had once been an embryo like that now growing within Anne's womb, had been born, grown into a young boy, went to school, made friends, had a life with hopes and dreams….then something had obviously happened. Something that had put paid to those hopes and dreams and then it had all come to an unceremonious, quick and sad end on the hard concrete of a parking lot.
It led him to think of the day of his first treatment, his thoughts that day as the chemicals entered his veins for the first time, the way he had thought then he'd wish to go, though even if he were able to choose, he would never choose that particular way for Anne's sake. If he couldn't die that way, however, he hoped to experience it as often as he possibly could before that day came. Another thought occurred to him related to the previous one. Was it safe? With her age, the fact that she had been told in the past due to her condition she would never bear children, was he destined to become well acquainted with 'Ms. Palmer' himself for the next nine months? Of course he knew there were other ways and that Anne would be happy to oblige, but as pleasurable as those may be, it wasn't quite the same. Under other circumstances, knowing he had years of life ahead of him, he could easily forego it for that relatively short amount of time, but with the clock ticking...
Anne returned to the car, opening the door and entering, handing a white, square box over to Preston, a smile on her face.
"Hold this." she told him.
"What is it?"
"What do you think it is? It wasn't five dollars." she said, starting the car.
With the delay getting home, Anne nearly starved and Preston's appetite beginning to return, they had made the decision to stop at a Chinese restaurant, one they had visited many times previously for what could be classified either a late lunch or an early dinner. Preston had eaten half of his meal, saving the rest to take home for later.
Immediately upon entering the house and after stowing Preston's leftovers in the refrigerator, Anne had escorted Preston straight to the bedroom where he changed into lounge pants and a t-shirt, she insisting that he follow the doctor's orders to rest, joking that she had been the one she expected to end up on bed rest, not Preston. The pain in his chest had worsened after the events of the day, Preston unable to fully hide his had convinced him to take one of the narcotics, though he insisted on half a dose as he had been taking when it became necessary. He had locked them up once again after retrieving it.
Anne had laid with him for a time before leaving him to rest, believing her presence was keeping him from sleep. The narcotic usually did set him to dozing but not this day, though it and resting had relieved the pain to an acceptable level. There were just too many things on his mind and it refused to shut down. He also feared if he slept now, he would end up awake half the night, though if he did, it would be a good chance for him to catch up on his reading. Not his mother's diary...he planned to set that aside again for a time after his vision. He would pick it back up once it would not strike quite as deep an emotional chord as it would now.
He was not one for male bravado, at least not anymore, yet he still experienced the common reticence many men felt towards displaying sorrow and grief, especially in front of others. It wasn't that it made him feel weak but vulnerable. He had felt vulnerable that day he had looked over to see Whitby's head half gone and then at the shrapnel protruding from his chest. He had felt vulnerable any time he had heard the bullets flying, the mortars exploding before that day, wondering each time if his number was about to come up, that the bullet or shell with his name on it would be launched in his direction. Then that day had finally come.
Preston lay in bed, again turning the ring on his finger and feeling antsy. Finally he rose, leaving the bedroom and making his way down the hall. Reaching the bedroom that Anne had converted into her home studio, he peeked in to find it empty. He had expected she would be there painting. He spied the three drawer cabinet in which she stored art supplies and walked across the room to it, opening the top drawer and finding what he was looking for.
Anne had attempted to learn to crochet at one point before giving it up in frustration, claiming she would give it another go later. In the drawer lay a large ball of yarn. Preston grabbed it along with a pair of scissors and measured off a small piece, cutting it and returning the ball and scissors to the drawer. Removing his ring, he began to wrap the length of yarn around one section of it, a trick he had seen his mother employ as a young boy long ago. Once finished, he slipped the ring back upon his finger, the yarn on the underside near his palm where it would not be visible. It now fit snugly.
A corner of a painting resting against the wall, three others leaning against it in front of it, obscuring it, caught his attention. He knew well which one it was. Walking over to it, he tipped those in front of it forward, examining the painting he had not looked at since their wedding night. Anne had not finished it, putting it aside, for obvious reasons, though she couldn't bring herself to discard it. Examining the various creatures she had painted emerging from the 'cave' which doubled as the hole that was the missing half of Whitby's head, he spied a familiar one. All the creatures she had depicted looked equally terrifying, yet now this one stood out to him as even more so. It was the same creature he had been confronted with in his vision. It stared back at him in miniature from the painting with its wide, round, red eyes. Quickly putting the other paintings back in front of it, Preston turned and left the room.
Preston heard music coming from the kitchen. He wondered what she was doing in there as they had eaten not all that long ago. It seemed Anne was in the mood for the sounds of the sixties.
When I think of all the worries that people seem to find, and how they're in a hurry to complicate their minds, by chasing after money and dreams that can't come true, I'm glad that we are different, we've better things to do. May others plan their futures, I'm busy loving you...one, two, three, four...sha la la la la la live for today...
The lyrics of the song that played could not be more prescient and he wondered if she had chosen it specifically, though he doubted continued to listen as he neared and then entered the kitchen.
We were never meant to worry the way that people do, and I don't mean to hurry as long as I'm with you. We'll take it nice and easy and use my simple plan. You'll be my lovin' woman, I'll be your lovin' man. We'll take the most from living, have pleasure while we can...two, three four...sha la la la la la live for today...
Anne stood with her back to him at the counter, a slice of chocolate cake on a plate in front of her. She had almost finished it, only a few bites remaining. Slipping up behind her, she seemed oblivious to his approach until he wrapped his arms around her waist.
"What are you doing? You're supposed to be in bed." Anne said.
"I couldn't sleep. How's your cake?" he asked.
"Good. Not quite as good as the ones I remember, but close. Close enough anyway." she answered.
"I've heard women say that chocolate is better…" Preston said.
"Better than what?" Anne asked. Without answering, Preston moved his hands from around her waist, up under her shirt to her breasts as he began to kiss her neck below her ear. "Oh...no...it isn't. At least none I've had so far...Alan...we shouldn't…." Anne said, turning around, Preston's hands transferring to her back as he unhooked her bra.
"Is it safe? I mean..." he asked.
"I don't know why it wouldn't be. There might come a time... I didn't mean that. I meant you're supposed to be resting. I don't want that to happen again." Anne stopped, looking into Preston's eyes. It wasn't just longing she saw in them but need as well and not merely the physical variety. Perhaps it was what he needed, herself as well, after all that had transpired since the day she had gotten the call from Crewson, relating to her a car accident, the day he had walked in the door and after all that had taken place since, and that day in particular. She had set aside her own need for his sake for the last week and it had been more than a week before that as he had been away. "Here...here in the kitchen?" she asked as Preston moved his hands to her waist, unbuttoning her jeans.
"We'll start here...who knows where we'll end up?" he said as he moved his lips to hers, thrusting his tongue into her mouth, hers entwining with his, before he turned her to face away from him, moving her jeans and panties down before placing his hands on her hips. Anne slid the plate that sat before her away from her down the countertop.