From a parked car near a family ice cream parlor, Boone’s voice came over Stoner’s communication device. “Are you coming back to the office today, Sir?”
“No, probably not. I’m shadowing a suspect.”
“A suspect in what?”
“The breach of security case, of course,” he bristled.
“Sir, you’re not following ― ?”
“You know who I’m tailing, Boone. And, since you know, you’re as much a part of this as I am. Are you going to report the situation?”
“Sir, you’re on an unsecured frequency.”
“Even the stalker has to take chances with the stalked.”
“Your son will be expecting you to come home, Ward,” Chalky coached.
“Are you manipulating me, Lieutenant?” he snapped.
“Is that possible?” She feigned an attitude of resignation.
“You’re doing it again.”
“Sorry . . . but I like my job so it’s important to me that you . . . do well.” She sounded cautious. Anyone tuned into the frequency would have been able to hear everything she said.
“A high tide floats all ships Boone and I’m riding high.”
“Sir . . . you are very brave . . . but you have never been careless,” Boone whispered, as if only the Inspector could hear the caution in her voice.
“Measuring caution with a larger beaker is sometimes necessary, Lieutenant.”
“But a person can drown in a bigger pool, Sir,” Boone returned without another word. Stoner had stopped listening. He was confronted with the greater challenge.
He sat back in his seat and scanned the road ahead of him but spent precious little time evaluating his options. The 281 Palm Device was on the seat beside him, waiting for his next bold move. He flipped it on. It glowed brightly; the hologram pulsed in front of him. “Call, Jonathon Fink . . . Fort Knox.”
Suddenly, his old friend appeared in the middle of the glowing image. “Hi Ward. It’s good to see you.”
“You too, Johnny. Say . . . what kind of trouble would you and I get into if you were to look up some information for me on a Legacy Citizen?”
There was silence, but Jonathon’s image revealed a restless man, uncomfortable with his friend’s inquiry. “Ward . . . you know ―”
“You know I know Johnny.” Stoner watched the man intently as he shimmered in front of him. “Look Man, this is important.”
“I know it is, or you wouldn’t ask. What are you needing?”
“The fact is, I don’t know. There is a young Legacy woman that is getting under my skin. She cannot possibly be as controlled as she pretends to be. She’s brave and growing in self-assurance.”
“Sounds like a great woman to me, Ward. How’s that a problem?”
“There has been a breach of security here. I know she has something to do with it. If I can’t stop what she’s doing, maybe I can use some previous history to persuade her to cooperate.”
“Persuade? You mean blackmail? Ward, I ―”
“I don’t see it as extortion, Johnny. I see it as evidence of a pattern of behavior, that’s all. What do you say?”
“Okay Ward, I owe you. But, this whole thing had better not come back to me.” Jonathon stated flatly.
A little fish may drown in a big pool . . . but not a shark. Stoner’s self-talk dripped with entitlement and confidence. The great white always circles and waits before the attack.
The Evil at Howard Mountain
Jason and I finished our frozen treats and were cautious in case anyone could see inside the ice cream parlor. I noticed the time. It was five p.m. Marion’s was going to close at six. When we finally went outside, the early evening darkness had taken on an eerie glow. The holiday lights had grown halos from bouncing off a fog that had silently crept in, like a panther on the edge of a forest. I felt just as vulnerable as an innocent prey waiting for the pounce of a mighty cat. Eyes seemed to be watching from behind every dark window. It wasn’t the same kind of curiosity I was used to. This was something else, something profoundly frightening to me.
Jason helped me into his car then paused at the passenger side door when his communications device vibrated.
“Dr. O’Reilly,” he acknowledged. “Yes, well, it’s late,” he apologized. “Yes, I understand. I have someone with me and I’ll have to bring her along. All right.”
Jason hurried around and hopped in the car. He rubbed his hands as he tried to warm them from the cold.
“Sorry, Christy. I just had an emergency call from Howard Mountain. I’ll have to go out there. I think I’d better take you along considering all that has happened this evening.”
He looked around, but the parking spaces were empty except for a few nearby. “Must have lost interest in us,” Jason said. “But, we’ll still have to deal with that camera. If the building maintenance man is into spying on tenants, then he’s in a lot of trouble.”
“That’s all right Jason. After a day like today, a ride in the country will be welcomed.”
Jason’s company blessed me more each time I was with him. Along the empty road to Howard Mountain, the rising moon was trying to burn a hole in the fog and cast an occasional moonbeam along our path. We arrived at the mountain at 5:30.
“Yes?” The speaker at the gate squawked when Jason buzzed for entrance.
“Dr. O’Reilly here. I’ve been asked to see a patient.”
“Dr. O’Reilly, thank goodness you came.” There was a rattle and then a screech. “The guard isn’t on duty so I’ve released the lock. The gate will swing inward. Please come to the main entrance.”
The gate swung open, and Jason pulled the car up to the front door of the huge stone facade at the entry to the chamber beneath the mountain. A gruff voice greeted us beyond the darkness of the vestibule. Jason assisted me from the car. Ice was rapidly forming on the front steps. He helped me safely over the threshold and inside the door.
“My Lady,” the man whispered in surprise.
It was only then that I saw who he was and I shuddered. “Silas Drummond,” I gasped. “I am relieved to see you are well. I saw ―” I hesitated, not knowing what had happened or why Jason had been called to the mountain.
“Why have I been summoned, Mr. Drummond?” Jason was patient but sounded as confused as was I.
“Follow me.” Silas led the way down a dark hall lined with unlit frosted glass display cases and into a brightly lit lounge area. He closed the door and leaned against it.
“We’re supposed to be alone. Since it’s Gift-giving Eve, I’m the only one here. But, I can’t take any chances.” He moved toward the light on the side table and displayed his hand which appeared to be seriously injured.
“That looks like a very bad burn, Silas,” Jason observed.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, Silas, but I have to know what’s going on,” I said. “You tried to contact me several times in the recent days. You wrote an absolutely horrendous note to me and then I saw them take you away in a squad car.”
“This is the man you have agonized about?” Jason’s question was laced with anger. “Okay, Drummond, what is this all about?”
“The note was true, My Lady, every word of it. I tried to contact you because you were the only person I knew who might be able to get a word about this place to the right authorities.” Silas waved his arms to indicate the entire surroundings.
“You mean . . . all the people who think they are entering the never-ending-sleep . . . are actually exterminated in a crematorium?” I shuddered with the thought of it and what that would mean to my grandparents.
Tears of anguish and exhaustion began to flow down Drummond’s cheeks. “Multiple furnaces, Miss Applewait. More than I want to think about. It’s my job to keep the flames lit and burning at a steady temperature. The other night, someone I knew was delivered, little Mari. You may remember her from the apartment building.”
The image of a beautiful young woman, just a few years younger than me, came to mind. “She had an awful limp, didn’t she Silas?”
“Yes Ma’am. Her medical advisor recommended a long rest but— there is no such thing, My Lady. It’s all the same. Long sleep or extended nap, it’s still death by fire.” His voice trailed off to a whisper. “And most enter the chamber while they’re still alive. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t lie to her. I had to get her out of here, so I left before my shift was up. I needed to escape so desperately, I didn’t even punch out and . . . I took Mari with me. I put a blanket around her, threw her over my shoulder, and carried her out with me. She was hidden near the edge of town at my sister’s home. I got her out of the zone quickly. The next day, when I didn’t show up for work, the Blue Guard found me in front of the library and delivered me back to this wretched mountain. They didn’t even ask me about Mari. Since so few people know about our work here, and the agencies don’t communicate with one another, no one was even aware that a soul had gone missing. They won’t know someone has escaped until they count the pairs of shoes.
“When they brought me back, I was here alone so I had to hurry making my furnace inspection rounds. I burned my hand on one of the oven doors.” He timidly turned the palm of his hand up and reluctantly showed the damage. “I was afraid my injury would be one insult too many to my safety here. I didn’t know what they would do to me, so I called the only doctor I knew. Dahlia has talked about you frequently and has said you can be trusted. I didn’t know you would be with Dr. O’Reilly, My Lady.”
Jason hesitated for a moment, his jaw tense and a look of disbelief was on his face. “Silas, you mean—people are simply executed here at the mountain?” He clenched his hands as he leaned on the lamp table. “All of them?”
“Every last one of them.” Drummond’s voice cracked with emotion so heavy it seemed to weigh down his entire being.
“And, my own parents?”
“Your parents, Doctor? Who were they?”
“Charles and Stephanie O’Reilly.” Jason’s voice trembled to a whisper.
“Oh . . .” Silas hung his head and averted Jason’s eyes. “I don’t think I know about them.”
“How long have you worked here?” Jason demanded.
“Almost twenty years, Sir.”
“Then you would have been here when they were brought in after their accident,” Jason pushed.
“I may have been on holiday, Sir.” He hesitated in silence. “Can you do anything for my hand?”
Jason stared at the man for a moment. “Yes, I have some cream and a special glove to protect the hand while the burn heals.”
“Will I be able to use my hand? If I can’t, they may declare me unfit for work. That would be too much. They already gave me consideration for my years of service and the uniqueness of my job when they decided my fate after my absence.” He closed his eyes and then added. “No one else would want this despicable position and . . . they’ve taken my car, so now I have no way to leave. I’m stuck here for at least a week, eating out of the food dispensers, during which time I’m supposed to be thankful that I have a valuable job that contributes to society.”
“Who else knows about this place?” Jason prodded, as he tended the burned hand.
“Very few citizens, except for me and a handful of other workers, know about the wickedness here in the bowels of the earth. Those who had known about the mountain are gone by now. They left no notes, no files, no trace of anything.” Drummond shook his head. He appeared to be in utter resignation to the part he had played in the atrocities under there. “All knowledge of the crematorium’s activity has faded into the dust of time, but the Length of Days policy continues to function like a perpetual motion machine, going on and on with no slowing in momentum.”
“You mean there is no one overseeing the work down here?” Jason asked.
“Once this horrendous mess was set into motion, it has just kept rolling on?” I couldn’t believe it. “How is that possible?”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, Miss Applewait. The only person who has ever come down here from above is Alister Bedlam.”
“What on earth does Alister Bedlam have to do with all of this?” Jason’s voice was curt and tense.
“He is the only one that I’m aware of, who has ever been down here or has ever contacted us from the surface.”
“Silas, why does he come here? What has he said when he’s called?” Bedlam is the richest man in the world, or at least the world with which we have communication.
“He calls to tell us when he has a display for the gallery. And, then he comes to see it once it has been delivered. Sometimes, he just comes to view the collection.”
“Collection of what, Silas? No one has ever heard of a museum out here.”
“Oh, I don’t know. It’s Bedlam’s private collection.”
“Why does he keep it way out here?”
“He wanted to keep it private and since no one knows anything about the process here, I guess he thought it would be safe under the mountain.” Silas was growing more uneasy as he shifted from one foot to the other and avoided our eyes. “I’m not allowed to talk about Bedlam’s museum. We are supposed to pretend we know nothing about it. Please don’t ask me anymore.”
“Keep the glove on until the burn is totally healed. Now, let’s get out of here, Christiana. The stench of the place is penetrating my skin. But, you can be sure, Silas, we will do everything we can to put a halt to these evil practices as soon as possible.” Jason took my arm and turned to leave.
“I will do what I can to close this place, Silas. You can count on me,” I said. We started to open the door to the lounge, and I blinked in the blackness of the hall. I was a step ahead of Jason.
“Here, Christiana, you need a light.” Jason reached for the bank of light switches on the wall beside the lounge door.
“NO!” Silas screamed as the lights blazed in the hallway.
We stepped into the bright hall and found that the cases we had passed were part of a long Galleria where glassed-in exhibits lined the area from the lounge all the way to the vestibule. Lights came on behind the frosted glass display cases as well. The objects of Alister Bedlam’s art were grotesque beyond my ability to imagine. They weren’t paintings or statues of fine marble. They were human beings, processed expertly for Bedlam’s sole possession and entertainment. The maimed, the elderly people, the middle aged, the young, and even children were in the collection: their bodies forever preserved by a taxidermist and encased behind thick glass.
“Christy,” Jason whispered in horror, “I know this man.” He pointed to a figure in a pinstriped suit with a gray fedora hat perched on the side of his head. “He and his wife used to come over to visit with my parents and play games.”
“I know him too, Jason. He was my Uncle Steven. He was one of the Wise Ones before he fell down his stairs and ceased to live.” I recoiled in horror at the monstrous display of disrespect for the deceased. “Why would Alister Bedlam do this?”
“Power, Christy. What, or who, he didn’t have power over in life, Bedlam gained in their death.” Then I heard Jason let out an agonizing groan as he moved up the hallway. He reached out to the case on the right and collapsed against the glass as he sobbed great tears of deep sorrow. “This . . . is . . . was . . . my mother, Christy.” Again he stepped back and took in the fully processed model of Stephanie O’Reilly. He looked with searching eyes for another exhibit and found it slightly behind his mother’s glass coffin. “And, this is my father.” He gasped as he shot a dangerously wild glance back at Silas Drummond.
“It’s not my fault, Doctor. I had nothing to do with any of it. This is Alister Bedlam’s total possession. We aren’t to touch them or even look at them.” Silas looked pleadingly at me with fear in his eyes. “Please Ma’am; get me out of this evil abomination. I had nothing to do with this exhibit. I had to follow orders and—I simply can’t do it anymore.” Silas dropped to the floor and reached out his hand to us, pleading. “You are the only people on earth who can help stop this evil,” he cried.
“Don’t look back, Christy” Jason gasped. “Let’s get out of here before the vileness of this place corrupts our souls. I don’t know if God even knows this place exists. If he does, he must flood these caverns with his own tears.” Jason hurried me out of that place of horror and back into the air of the clear night.
As we stepped out into the air, we heard Silas calling. “Please,” he begged, “don’t forget me.” He staggered to the doorway, “Please.”
“I won’t forget, Silas,” I called out over my shoulder as Jason hustled me into the car. “We’ll do something. Trust me, Silas!”
Once in the safety of Jason’s car, both of us broke down in violent sobs. We grabbed each other and held on while the grief flowed from our spirits like a cleansing rain. Finally, we were able to talk about it. We knew that now, time had reached a vortex, whirling and churning and sucking all the forces of the world into a point of clarity where action would finally be required. Silas’s warning had nearly cost him his life. Now that knowledge rested on our shoulders. It was ours to pick up and carry, or to cast aside.
If we were to keep our promises to Silas Drummond and to my grandparents, we would have to run fast enough to stay ahead of those who followed. Jason and I knew the evil in our society had the power to destroy us.
The encounter with Silas Drummond and learning the awful secrets beneath Howard Mountain had shaken us with so much grief, horror and anger, that we sat in Jason’s car, just holding each other for a while. Finally, Jason collected himself. “We’d better go back to your place Christy and think this out. Silas won’t be left alone for long.”
“You’re right. No telling what Alister Bedlam might do,” I said. “Jason, we will bring Bedlam to justice somehow.”
Jason raced back to the city on a clear and empty road. Just as we crossed the line marking the city limits, the shrill sound of a siren pierced the night and was muffled strangely against the heavy air. The squeal of tires followed as three Blue Guard cars screamed to a halt in front of us. From inside the first car, I heard a loud shout. “We have them!” Then, Jason’s car doors were jerked open.
I saw a tall man in a blue uniform, lumbering toward us and I froze. I could see as he stood beneath a streetlight, his jacket was emblazoned with the crest of the Blue Guard.
“Dr. O’Reilly,” he touched his hat brim, “Ma’am.”
“Good evening Officer,” Jason responded.
I was exhausted with fear and too shaken to answer. The reality that I was being watched, even at my apartment and then the awful revelation of the ghastly murders at Howard Mountain left my emotions spent and numb. Now officials of the government—a government we were in profound opposition to—had stopped us. Had these men been monitoring us? Did they know we had been to the mountain? How was it possible that all of this was happening to us on our very first Christmas Eve?
“Get out of the car and come with me,” the man ordered. The Blue Guard turned to leave and seemed to expect us to follow him without question.
“Why?” Jason stayed sitting with his arm holding me tight against him.
“Just come with me, Sir.” The officer didn’t turn around but kept walking to his car.
“I will know why and where we are going before I expose Lady Applewait to any more unknown situations tonight.” Again, Jason did not move.
The man turned back toward us, obviously aware that his orders were not being obeyed. “Dr. O’Reilly, there is an emergency. You will have to bring Lady Applewait with you. There is no time to take her home.”
“Where? What emergency?” Jason demanded. “Will I have the things I’ll need to administer proper care?”
“Sir . . .” The Blue Guard’s face grew tight and hard. “I will pull my weapon if I have to. Both of you are coming with me. Now, get out and get into my car.”
“What is this emergency?” Jason began, again attempting to regain control of the situation.
“Sir, I am ordering you both to get into my car.” The Guard placed his hand on his weapon holder and unsnapped the safety grip.
Jason helped me out of his car and into the back of the officer’s vehicle without saying another word. I was wondering when we should take a stand. But, there are times when, for safety sake, talk must be abandoned. When we settled ourselves in the back of the officer’s car, I saw no handles on the inside of the doors, and I panicked. I grabbed Jason’s hand without saying a word, but my mind was flooded with fear. What was happening now? Where were they taking us? Were they taking us back to the mountain? Do they know we have been exposed to its secrets?
My mind reverberated from the screams I held inside and back to the words of my grandmother. “It won’t be in time, Christy. We’ll be seventy-five in two weeks.”
As I clung to Jason, I kept thinking. How could we reverse the terrible Length of Days policy when no one remembered why it was initiated, or what the terrible processes involved? At the end of the month, my grandparents would reach the end of their Length of Days. They would then endure the vile death process that would only add more agony to their fate. Now, Jason and I knew that Alister Bedlam played a large part in the unspeakable acts and cruel disrespect for life at Howard Mountain. My mind couldn’t hold any more. And, still the clock kept ticking.
As the Blue Guard’s strata-car sped to our unknown destination, deep down, where fear takes root in all we are, I knew we could be racing to our own deaths. If we were to tell our abductors that we would do nothing to find a solution to the Length of Days policy, would they let us go? What did they know about Howard Mountain? How could we find the solution to unseal the fate of Grand-mère and Grand-père if we were held captive or exterminated like all the rest? I felt helpless and hopeless. I had never experienced those emotions before but recognized them.
I looked at Jason. His set jaw and determined look gave me courage. Together, we would find the solutions. Suddenly, above all the confusion and fear, I imagined that music filling the car with the power to calm my spirit, and I was able to think more clearly.
I had never thought of myself as a brave person, but for the first time in my life, I wanted to stand up for something, to have a cause worth living for. Overturning the laws regarding the Length of Days horror, I vowed would be the single focus of my life. But, while I knew I was willing to live for the principle, and to die for it if necessary, I didn’t know if I could sacrifice Jason’s life with mine for the cause ahead of us.
Now what is this all about? Inspector Ward Stoner grumbled. Why didn’t I receive the APB first? He saw the Blue Guard vehicle stop and force two people into their strata-car. He followed behind the racing convoy of heavily marked cars as they sped through the dark night. Stoner gripped the steering wheel roughly and his shoulders grew tight with tension. Nothing came over the radio. He couldn’t believe the audacity, the arrogant disregard for protocol. How is it that the Chief Inspector of the Blue Guard could be outside the chain of command, again? People will answer for this breach of policy.
No one in the department had his finger on the pulse of every artery like Ward Stoner. He was usually the first to know everything, mainly because he was in charge of the unit but also because he never gave up or gave in. If he didn’t have the answers, he held on until every nuance of the situation was revealed. He didn’t care how long it took. He sped through the streets, mumbling curses at the colorful lights that twinkled brightly, while he felt dark inside his soul.
Without Miriam to go home to, there was little reason to end a work day. He still had Christopher, but the child only reminded him of Miriam and that made him miss her more. Her golden hair and bright blue eyes shone from the child they had shared. Recently, Stoner had been trying harder to be there for the boy. But, the more he attended to the child, the more inadequate he felt. Then like an exhausting, circular treadmill he could not free himself from, he pushed the boy away again to hide himself from the guilt.
Occasionally, circumstances outside his control forced him to face the reality of his relationship with his son. Now, it was nearly Gift-giving Day, and he wanted to make it special for the boy. Christopher had hinted about a new virtual game he wanted. In the game, the small child could place himself within several environments, like visiting a zoo where he could walk among the roaring tigers and brush so close he could count their stripes. In another scene, he could walk through a museum where dinosaurs loomed above and around. Within the holographic image, he could find a moment of joy and perhaps a brief experience of laughter. Stoner wanted that for Christopher.
The Inspector worked most of the time and the boy had only his grandmother to read the few approved children’s books to him and interact with throughout the day. She was wonderful with Christopher, and Ward appreciated all she did. But, Chris was his son, and he knew that he should be more involved in his life.
Now, on Gift-giving Eve, Stoner was chasing around the city following his own men. He had also lost track of Lady Applewait some hours ago, like her chip had simply vanished from the tracking system. How can that be? She started out toward the country then vanished from the grid, he argued with himself. My time is precious tonight, and I don’t even know why I’m in pursuit of these cars and not following the little lady who has seemed to evaporate. He growled on and on into the night.
The Blue Guard’s cars flew through the streets at speeds that would have stopped other drivers. However, there was not a single officer of the law with the authority to stop a member of the Blue Guard, much less a posse of them. They sped through stop streets and traffic lights and whipped around corners at break neck speeds. They finally crossed the invisible line into Oakwood.
Well now, what do we have here? Stoner’s sneer distorted his face and gnawed at his stomach. Even the special, fancy people have problems do they? They’re not above needing us, needing me. His anger rose to the surface again and burst out every pore. I will find out what is going on. The day after First-day, heads will roll!
He slowed to the curb a half block down the quiet street from where the other cars had abruptly stopped and turned off his lights. The Blue Shirts got out of the front seat and jerked the curbside back door open. A man and a woman were pulled from the car and nudged toward a large old-style house. Once the authorities and their reluctant captives went into the house, the area was silent again. Stoner could hear the sound of his own breathing. His breath was visible on the chilled air, but he was far from cold. His anger shot hot blood through his veins. In the still of the night, he sat in silence and stared at the old house in the next block. He ground his teeth and clenched the steering wheel with fists of steel.
Rebecca’s Husband Michael
Jason had kept his arm around me as the Blue Guard cars sped down the city streets. I knew where we were, and it brought me no comfort. We had crossed into Oakwood, the older section of town. My heart stopped with fear of what that could have meant. Is this line of boot thumping Blue Guards racing to Grand-mère and Grand-père’s house because of something I said or did? Are the dear ones’ precious few remaining days at risk because of me? Will they end up on display at Howard Mountain?
The cars had stopped, however, in front of a stately old red brick house two blocks from my grandparents’ home. I felt both relief and dread. I was thankful they were not seeking out my grandparents. But, I wondered who lived at that house and what fate awaited them?
The driver stomped out of the car and jerked the door open. “Out quickly.”
This time Jason said nothing. It was a command, not a request. We knew we had to play their game to the best of our ability, even though we didn’t know any of the rules. A misspoken word or a misperceived movement could be taken as noncooperation, resistance, or even threatening aggression.
I was not sure that my legs would support me as I stepped from the car and staggered slightly. Jason grabbed me around my waist and held me firmly as I regained my footing on the ice. I kept my eyes fixed on the ground and didn’t look toward my grandparents’ home. The officers seemed to have more interest in Jason than in me. I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself or to my family.
“This way,” the Blue Guard leader commanded. “Follow me.”
We walked quickly to the front door. The Blue Guard burst into the house without a word of warning. Were we forced into being part of this invasion into someone’s personal space, perhaps a government official or a member of the Council of Elders?
“Back here,” a man in casual slacks, open neck white shirt, bare feet and a grim look on his face, motioned for us to follow him. Only professional men continued to dress in the traditional garb of authority but it was easy to see that something had interrupted his attempt at relaxation. I didn’t recognize the man. And, I felt a measure of relief not knowing him.
We followed him silently down a bright hall behind a grand staircase and pushed through a set of tall wooden double doors.
“Quickly,” the man pleaded as he took Jason by the arm and led him into the adjoining bathroom. I saw a fleeting glimpse of a woman in white trousers spattered in blood, holding a fallen young man’s head in her arms. She cradled him close to her body like a mother rocks her sick child, while streams of tears flowed down her cheeks. Her face was contorted in desperate fear. For the first time in my life, I could feel her pain, and it was nearly more than I could bear. Empathy could prove to be a curse, not a blessing, I thought. Now, with all I know, my tender new soul will surly wither in the fire of evil.
The guard held up a halting hand and motioned for me to stay in the bedroom while Jason went inside the bathroom. The sobs and groans of anguish were frightening to hear.
I couldn’t focus on the pain. It was too much. I looked around the room and began to separate myself from the agony.
The room I was in was masculine in design, with muted tones of beige and brown. The bed was nothing like a normal bed, even an expensive one from a high-end store. The frame was metal, rather than wood, with shiny bars that came up one side and across and above the mattress. A festive red poinsettia plant sat on the corner of a large bedside table. A lamp, small bottles with lids, a pitcher and glass of water were also placed there. Is someone ill? A light blue bathrobe was draped across the end of the bed but I saw no slippers.
“Lay him flat.” I heard Jason call out orders from the bathroom but the rest of the conversation was muffled. I could hear frantic movement but nothing more was said.
Someone was obviously struggling for his life in a society that no longer valued life. The thought came to me that, if the young man had been taken to the hospital, in his condition, he would have been permitted to slip into the permanent sleep. Yet, Jason had been captured in the hope of saving his life. Perhaps we were in a home that shared a reverence for life with my family.
The Blue Guard didn’t stop me as I walked around the bedroom. A cluster of five pictures hung on the side wall, positioned so the one in bed could easily see them. In the first one, three young men, their arms linked in friendship, appeared to be celebrating their victory in reaching a blue sky mountain summit. The curly haired blond Nordic type appeared again in the next photo dressed in a fine suit. He held a beautiful young woman in a flowing blue gown in his arms. She looked familiar to me, but I didn’t want to stare. Their happiness was written on their faces like a bold and beautiful advertisement of their love. The broad smile appeared again in the next picture, in a playful headlock with an older man. The mature one looked like the gentleman who had led us in through the house. I surmised it might be his father. The young man and the father appeared in the next shot with an attractive older woman, probably the one I saw bending over the man in the other room. The fifth picture was of a cozy log cabin in a deep woods with cloud-covered mountains stretching up toward Heaven. The same blond young man sat on the porch steps and smiled at the one who held the camera.
“Oh thank God, thank God,” I heard the woman shout from the bathroom.
Then I heard what sounded like struggling, grunting and huffing. Then Jason’s voice, “Your Honor let me help you.”
Jason stepped out of the bathroom followed by the man I thought must be the father of the injured man. He carried the broken body of his son back into the bedroom. As the man strained under the weight, I could see that he too was covered in blood. The woman I felt sure was the mother, followed close behind, her hand gripped her chest and her face was etched with fear.
I quickly stepped aside in the shadows of the room and waited. I wanted to be somewhere, anywhere but there. I was unprepared for the powerful emotions that continued to pour over me.
Once the younger man was placed on the bed, I saw the apparatus that spanned above it. Even though he was obviously still weak, he grabbed the bar over his body and helped position himself in the center of the bed. As I watched, I could finally see his face. He was my friend Rebecca Brunner’s husband, Michael, and Judge Brunner’s son. I remembered that Rebecca lost her life in a mountain climbing accident less than a year ago. Maybe the fall claimed Michael’s legs as well. It could have happened near the cabin in the picture. Rebecca was most likely the photographer he gazed at with loving eyes. I stared at the picture again and wondered why he would have placed such a memory in front of his eyes where he would have to look at it every moment of every day.
“How are you feeling now?” Jason asked Michael. “You’ll have quite a headache for several days, and yes, that will include Gift- giving Day morning. But, if you’re lucky, your stomach will settle by tomorrow afternoon in time for the Christmas feast.” He chuckled and patted Michael’s leg.
Jason had spoken the word out loud, Christmas, and in front of Judge Brunner and the Blue Guard. How did he dare to break the law in such a bold way?
“Vonny will be here at ten a.m. I’ll be better by then, or I’ll fake it.” Michael whispered and tried to adjust his position again. “I wouldn’t spoil Christmas for her for anything.” Then he looked in my direction. “Christiana, is that you?” He strained as he looked back at Jason. He must have read our feelings. “Wow, Doc, I didn’t know.” He grinned as his light-hearted spirit seemed to fight through the fog of his pain.
I didn’t know Michael well. Rebecca had introduced him to me. She talked about him all the time. Rebecca had said that Michael had a sense of humor, which was a rare gift in those days. One had to feel in order to laugh.
“I didn’t know either, Michael, until yesterday. Christy and I just met recently.” Jason picked up Michael’s wrist, looked at the clock on the side table, and took his pulse.
“I hope you feel better soon, Michael,” I offered. “How old is Vonny now?” I approached the bed slowly and stopped a respectful distance away, not wanting to intrude on the family’s joy of having their son back from the brink of death.
“She’s three years old and looks just like her mother,” he whispered.
I could see that Rebecca’s death had left Michael’s emotions raw and then I stopped and studied his face. Michael was experiencing feelings too, like some of the others around town. How many feelers were there? I wondered what else I had missed while I dozed behind the mask of additives. I had been walking around with my head wrapped in cotton all my life. I wondered if Rebecca too had been able to fully love before she died. I glanced back at her picture in the party dress and suspected that she had been a feeler long before her death.
“Vonny has been staying with Rebecca’s parents for a few days since it’s the holiday time. They love her so much. It’s like having their daughter back again.” Michael closed his eyes. It was easy to see his energy was spent.
“Is he going to be okay, Doctor?” Mrs. Brunner rubbed her son’s foot, like she was afraid to let go.
“He should be fine,” Jason answered.
A disaster had been averted, but I still didn’t know what had happened to Michael.
A Little Understanding
I felt relief seeing Jason smile. It had been a medical emergency after all, not a threat connected to Howard Mountain. Jason and I still had to deal with that.
“Michael’s fall has done no permanent damage. He will need a lot of rest if he’s going to enjoy his Christmas dessert,” Jason smiled at Mrs. Brunner. “Let’s pull the shades to block the light for a while. Michael, you’ll feel better if you take this medication for the pain and close your eyes. You should be better in a few hours.”
“Thank God,” Mrs. Brunner sighed like she hadn’t exhaled for a very long time. “Let’s go into the living room, and I’ll bring in some coffee. I think a stimulant would be just what the doctor ordered right now.” Mrs. Brunner smiled at Jason. “Am I right, Doctor?”
“That would be very nice.” Jason sat down on the couch beside me and gave me a reassuring hug.
“May I ask what happened?” I felt like I was intruding into a very private part of a family’s tragedy. But, I had been dragged into this situation, nearly at the point of a gun. I believed I deserved an answer.
Judge Carl Brunner sank down onto an overstuffed chair and buried his head in his hands. “Wow, that was close,” he said when he finally looked up. “Yes, Christiana, you deserve an answer to all of this.” He spread out his arms, gesturing toward Michael’s room, to include an explanation for it all.
Mrs. Brunner returned with a tray of coffee cups and placed one in front of each of us. Then she turned and served the four guards I had nearly forgotten as they stood at near-attention against the wall. “You could use some hot coffee too, I’m sure.” She came back and sat down in the chair beside the judge.
“Who are those men?” I asked. We were treated as if we were being kidnaped and brought here to find that Michael had nearly lost his life.
“They are a very special detail of Blue Guard that are independent of the entire division,” Judge Brunner began. “After Rebecca died and Michael was hurt, he would have been immediately placed in the endless sleep. But his doctor, Roy Kundred believed that, given enough time, the nerves in Michael’s damaged back could heal with proper stimulation and treatment with the newest procedures. Nerves heal, strengthen, and reattached with the aid of quantum radiation stimulation. But, there was absolutely no exception to the rule of termination. So Michael’s Godfather, your grandfather, Christiana, assigned a loyal group of guardsmen to make sure no one got too near Michael or discovered his condition.”
“Yes, dear, and Connie, your grandmother, helped us as well. She would stay at home near the communication center to respond to any callers looking for Oliver while he came over here and prayed with all of us. Michael’s wonderful guards, who are now his friends, were included.” She stirred her coffee and sipped a little. “I would see Oliver walking past the house sometimes. He would pause like he was tying his shoe, and while he was down there, he would pray for Michael.”
“He would . . . pray with all of you? My grandfather?” Tears came to my eyes as I thought of all I had not known, all of the love I had missed, all of the joy that had flown by while I was asleep in the shelter of my life.
“When you were younger, Christiana, it was dangerous for you to know of our beliefs, dangerous for you and for us. You had to be mature enough to know that you could not talk to anyone about it.” Judge Brunner’s reassuring words comforted me a little. I still felt I had been left out of the greatest secret ever held.
“Sir Richly handpicked each one of us, Ma’am,” said the guard who had driven us to the Brunner’s home. “I had felt very privileged at the time. Now, I know I was blessed with a great opportunity, to get to know and serve Michael and to learn about the Master.”
“The master of what?” I asked.
“Not the master of just anything, My Lady, but the Master of my soul.” As the guard spoke, his face seemed to glow with a mysterious radiance.
While I noticed, I didn’t make a comment about the strange light that radiated from him. “And tonight?” I went on. “What happened to Michael that caused the crisis today?”
“Have his treatments not worked?” Jason questioned. He knew Dr. Kundred, but he had known nothing of Michael Brunner and the injuries that left him unable to walk.
“To the contrary, they are working very well,” Silvia smiled. “This evening, Michael had swung himself into his wheelchair as he always did. Your dear grandmother had taken his chair from her own attic, Christiana. No one has had a wheelchair for a long time, except in the hospital for very temporary use. Since the severely injured or permanently disabled are not permitted treatment, there is no need for them. It would have brought attention to Michael if we had asked to use a hospital wheelchair. Connie’s grandfather had used the chair and when he was done with it, it was stored in the attic and forgotten. When we needed it, Connie and Oliver put it in their own car, drove over here with it, and pulled right into our garage. We closed the door before the chair was removed. No one knows it ever existed. No one knows it’s here.” She smiled again as the color began to return to her face.
“But, what happened to Michael today?” I questioned.
“Today, Michael went through his bathroom door in the chair and tried something he shouldn’t have.” Silvia Brunner shook her head and closed her eyes. “His treatments have increased the sensations in his legs. They really have, and that’s a good thing. This evening, he could feel his legs a little and decided to use his arms to lift himself out of the chair. He thought he could lean against the sink while he washed up for bed. He is improving, but he wasn’t ready for that kind of move. His feet went out from under him and he struck his head on the basin on the way down. I heard the crash and found him unconscious on the floor. Blood was everywhere.” She finally looked down at her slacks. “Oh my dear, I am so sorry. I look awful.”
“You look like a mother who has gone through a trauma with her son,” I reassured her. “I will have to be honest. . . .” I didn’t know if I should share my thoughts with her or not, but, she knew my grandparents and she felt like family. “I wondered if he had attempted suicide.”
Silvia’s expression didn’t change. The sweetness remained but pain came and mingled with it. “Michael has been through that dark period since the accident.” She looked intently at me, and I could feel what she felt. My books called it empathy, but I named it heartache.
“Christiana, several times within the first month following Rebecca’s death, Michael attempted to end his life. As soon as he was able to move around the house in the wheelchair, he tried to manoeuver himself out onto the porch. He hoped someone would see him and report the presence of a disabled person in the neighborhood.” Silvia Brunner had dissolved into a whisper as fear overtook her again. “Our Blue Guardsmen were able to protect him from himself and brought him back in the house before he was seen. Then, a few days later, Carl found Michael on the floor of his bathroom, covered in his own blood. He had taken a sharp shaving blade to his wrist and, well, that was not the situation today. When Vonny saw her daddy’s bandaged wrist and asked him what had happened, he was filled with shame. He vowed then and there that he would never try to take his own life again. Today was an accident, just an accident.” Her eyes were pleading with me. “But, Christiana, now that he wants to live, he could have died tonight.”
“It was a very close call, Mrs. Brunner.” Jason agreed. “If you hadn’t been there quickly, to apply a firm compress, he would have bled out before I could have gotten here.”
“And thank you so much for coming, Dr. O’Reilly. Dr. Kundred is on a holiday with his family,” she whispered, with a voice full of gratitude.
“I’m afraid their coming was our doing, Ma’am. They didn’t actually have a choice,” the Blue Shirt offered apologetically.
“Oh my,” she gasped and looked back at Jason and me. “I am so sorry. I hope you weren’t frightened.”
“Well, maybe a little,” I admitted a partial truth. “But, I understand now. The guards couldn’t tell us anything in public.”
“That’s right,” Judge Brunner agreed. “I’m afraid their insistence was my fault. I told them to find a doctor and bring him or her here, whatever it took. They weren’t to tell anyone the reason. And, they weren’t to take ‘No’ for an answer.”
“Carl, you didn’t?” Silvia scolded.
“That’s okay, Mrs. Brunner. I do understand,” I said. “Our family is facing a similar situation. I’ve been worrying over my grandparents’ birthdays coming up in a few days. They will both be seventy-five years old. Their birthdays are only days apart. You know what that means.”
“Oh Christiana, not Oliver and Constance,” the judge gasped. “I had been so caught up with Michael’s needs, I hadn’t even been aware that they were coming near the end of their Length of Days. I’m sorry I’ve been preoccupied. They helped us so much and still support us with their prayers.”
I thought of the risks we were all taking that night. I thought about the glass cases of loved ones, Jason’s family, someone’s family. The images brought a nausea that rose and swelled within me and spoke out more boldly. My insides rattled with fear, excitement, and overspent energy.
“This evil act, the Length of Days policy, must be dissolved. Tonight, Jason and I have learned more about the despicable practice than anyone knew. It’s deceivingly called the never-ending-sleep, but it isn’t sleep at all. And, I may have found a solution for overturning the policy regarding terminations based on the Length of Days.”
“Christiana, praise the Lord! What have you found?” Silvia threw both hands in the air. “It’s all so dangerous. Bless you for doing this.”
“Grand-mère and Grand-père mean everything to me.” As I spoke their names, I felt a renewed strength and reason for the fight. “I used to sit on Grand-mère’s lap as a small child while she read books to me. It was magical. She would play out each part, changing her voice to match the characters. Someday, I’d like a child of my own to sit on that same sweet lap while Grand-mère reads to them.”
“Ah, my dear, the French word for grandma, Grand-mère. That is lovely.”
“And . . . Mrs. Brunner,” I continued, “I am waking up to a new spiritual awareness and a reverence for life. No one cares about life anymore. It’s being disposed of like yesterday’s trash. And for the rest, life is more to be endured than to be lived. Life is . . . God given and its worth is God validated.” I could feel hot tears gathering in the corners of my eyes and stream down my cheeks. “I will fight for the overturn of that Godless law before it’s too late, too late for my grandparents and the unnumbered others who await that fate. Jason and I have just learned some horrible information about the process of termination.”
“We’ll share more about the process another time,” Jason added. “Tonight is Christmas Eve, a time for beauty and rejoicing.”
“That’s right, Jason. Thanks for reminding me,” I said. “But, we will try to stop the policy and put an end to it all.”
“You don’t have much time, Christiana,” Judge Brunner warned. “What on earth can you do with only a few days remaining before their birthdays?”
“Judge, I may need your help.”
“Anything,” he pledged sincerely. “I owe your grandparents so much. And now, today, I have added another debt, to you and Dr. O’Reilly. Besides, a change in the law could help more people than just your grandparents and my son. How do we do it?”
“Sir, a law can be overturned by a citizens’ referendum. I have done the research. With a petition signed by a majority of the population, a law can be changed.” I didn’t know if I dare say any more. But, I didn’t have time to play it cautiously. I leaned in toward the Brunners and whispered. “I have heard a rumor about a petition that is already circulating, but I don’t know yet if it pertains to Length of Days legislation or . . . detoxification, or both.”
“All of us here have been detoxed for several years now, Christiana.” Judge Brunner spoke with the seriousness worthy of our cause. “I said I will do anything, and I will. If you can get enough signatures on a petition before your time runs out, I will institute a stay order, suspending all terminations until signatures from all across the country can be secured. This affects Michael too, you know. And Christiana, God bless you and Dr. O’Reilly for your bravery and dedication.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
“Judge Brunner, we need something else,” Jason joined in.
I was baffled. I felt like our cause had been assured if the petition signatures were there.
“The cover letter, Christy,” Jason reminded me.
“Oh, Jason.” I felt my hopes slip into doubt again, but I shook off the easy way out, of giving up. Maybe Judge Brunner had a solution to the cover letter as well.
“What cover letter?” the judge asked.
“A formality put in place many years ago. A citizens’ referendum must be accompanied by a cover letter. It is an official form that must be filled out exactly according to the directions given.”
“And where do you get that?” The judge asked.
“The forms are buried among some old papers in the records office in the Capitol building,” I sighed as I thought of yet another hurdle to leap. “The offices are closed until the Monday after the holidays. We’ll have to turn it in that day.” I got up, feeling I wanted to flee. I was tired of hearing the problem. I wanted to talk about the solution.
Judge Brunner jumped to his feet and reached into this pocket. “The records and forms office is on the second floor of the Capitol. The lift won’t be working until after the holidays, but you can go up the steps.” He fished out two keys. One looked new and the other was dull and old. It had a scrolled and fancy head and a thick, warn shaft.
“This newer one goes to the door in the back of the building where the judges can enter out of the watchful eye of the public.” He then handed me the antique key. “You can get in the records’ office with the newer key. It’s like a master to all the other locks. But this old one goes to the back file room where old records and forms are stored. Your cover letter and instructions must be in there. Try looking under Old Order or simply Old Forms. You should be able to find what you need. That’s the only place I think, that type of material may have been filed.”
“Oh, Judge Brunner, thank you.” I flung my arms around him without hesitation or thought.
He patted my back the way my father used to soothe me when I fell. “Your courage tonight will benefit us all, Christiana. God’s speed and safety to you both.” Then he turned to Jason. “You are going with her, aren’t you Doc?”
“Absolutely,” Jason assured him and put his arm around my waist.
Then the judge reached out his hand in friendship to Jason. “Bless you, Jason O’Reilly. You saved Michael’s life tonight. Tomorrow, when I have pulled my wits together, I will thank you properly.”
“I’m glad your Guard contingent could find me, Sir,” Jason smiled broadly, “even if your Blue Shirts did kidnap us in the process of getting us here.”
We turned to leave then Jason stopped. “I think we will need a ride back to my car.”
“One of the guards will take you anywhere you want to go—the moon and back if that’s your desire.” He waved in wide sweeping motions.
I started toward the door, but I could not let my question go unasked. “Ma’am, I hope this doesn’t seem too nosy but—if Rebecca’s accident happened near the cabin in the picture, why does Michael have the photo hanging where he has to look at it all the time? I would think he wouldn’t want to be reminded of his loss every day.”
Silvia Brunner put her hand to her mouth and smiled softly. Gathering her composure, she said, “Let me see if I can explain this to you, my dear. He said, others may forget her, but he will make sure he never does. Michael doesn’t have to see the picture every day, Christiana. He wants to see it every day. He told me that it is a privilege. He said it’s because . . . his heart is buried there.”
At that moment, I knew why angels sing. When love overflows the heart, it spills out in song.
Read Faster: Get eBook or paperback by clicking on the cover to the right, or go to www.amazon.com, www.b&n.com or www.cokesbury.com. 1st in a trilogy.