Robert managed to find a car to rent for the day that was not too small for me. Again, when I thanked him, he merely shrugged and said that he was only helping a man, not saving the world. If he had been as insightful as Bailey, would he have understood that he was saving my world? The likelihood of that occurred to me then and I only smiled, thinking that he was an endearingly obtuse person at times.
The drive to the farm took four hours. We stopped every hour or so to stretch, much to my glee. Although, I was disoriented in learning that the trip was so short. All those years, I had felt worlds away from home when in fact if I had flown a couple hours east I would have been there. So close, yet so far...
When we arrived, time became a blur. I could not recall leaving the vehicle or walking the distance from the street to the house, the fields stretching out around it bare and empty. I was in another time entirely, when the crops were always rich and the home was not peeling paint or looking so rotted. Even Robert did not exist beside me in this mirage, yet when I took the first step onto the porch I was shocked back into the now and had to wonder if this was not the illusion.
I stood on the porch of the old farm house in sheer confusion. The place was familiar, yet it felt wrong to return. Mother and Father would not be waiting to greet me after a night of chores or a day at the church. They would never be greeting anyone in their home again.
Lisa now lived here, having inherited the house in my place. What did she look like now? Surely not the adorable little sister I had grown up with. Would she look like a grandmother or just a mother by now?
Taking a deep breath to steady myself, I knocked on the door while I attempted to keep myself from shaking in fear. I jumped when the door opened to a small elderly woman with graying hair. She had the same sweet smile my sister had always worn. When she saw me, she gasped in shock.
“Cory?! You…You’re really back?” she asked in a voice as frail as she appeared.
“I told you that I would be permitted to leave,” I replied awkwardly. Too long, I had been gone from home far too long. It was alien now, the scent of it horribly changed.
“You told us that a lot thirty-seven years ago,” she said quietly, sounding bitter. She appraised me for a minute. “If it weren’t for the skin color, I’m not sure I would have recognized you. You’ve collected a few scars since I last saw you.”
I looked at a particularly nasty scar on my arm. There were several other, smaller scars that crossed every which way. They were all vicious, ugly purple things that marred my already hideous appearance. I understood what she meant, as I had seen my reflection earlier that day.
“Dear, Cory, your face, too,” she gasped in horror. “What did they do to you?”
I looked away with a sigh, shaking my head and forcing back tears. I wanted to finish a happy visit before I began to delve into all that had genuinely happened. Slowly, I realized that the joy had left this place. “I apologize. I would rather not discuss any such things at the moment. How have you been? You said you had grandchildren now, when last we spoke over the phone?”
She nodded, smiling and allowing me to relax into this strange new environment. “Yes. You remember I had a daughter?”
“Yes, I do. How many children does she have, then?” I inquired politely, keeping the conversation casual.
“Three girls,” she smiled, laughing lightly. “My granddaughters are gorgeous. You’re sure to meet them this weekend, too.”
“This weekend?” I asked uncertainly, thinking that I would not be staying here long. Already, the gloomy atmosphere had begun to press in against me. What had happened here that left such a sad mark?
“Well, of course. You do want to use your room again, don’t you?” she asked sincerely, motioning for me to come in. I ducked inside, keeping my head bowed under the short ceiling.
I laughed quietly. “I forgot how small these rooms were.”
“I don’t do so well on the stairs anymore, Cory, but your room's still there, in almost the same condition you left it in,” Lisa told me, pointing up the stairs. I nodded as I began climbing up to the second floor, nostalgic.
When I opened the door to my room, my memory said that Kate should be waiting for me with a smile. My hopes were bruised with disappointment when she was not there, but I knew that she would not be. Family was one case, expecting Kate to have held on was foolish and greedy.
Lisa was right. The room looked exactly the same. My things were in the same corners, other than the wicker basket Kate had first given me. There were letters stacked within it, all addressed to me with no stamp. It was Mother’s handwriting. I wept to think that she had written me so often, giving me the letters the only way she could think to. I could imagine her coming in here, sitting and waiting for me to come home. How heartbroken she must have been, when so many seasons passed without word of me.
Closing the door behind me gently, I then went to sit on my bed. I remembered the Christmas that it was placed in my room and chuckled sadly. There were traces of my old world everywhere here, but it was all so far gone that I never could have hoped to touch it.
Robert knocked quietly before stepping into the room. He looked at it in wonder, as though he had witnessed a fairy tale come to life. He smiled at me. “So, this is where you grew up?”
I nodded and smiled back, wiping the tears from my face. I pulled the wicker basket onto my lap, picking up letters and staring at them. Some of them were dated on the envelope.
“Yes, this was my home. Although...That window is new,” I commented with a frown. “Otherwise, it look—My mistake, the records and player are missing. As well as some books. Oh, a pity, but after so long I cannot expect it all to be just as I left it...”
My eyes strayed to the top of the wardrobe, and I paused with a curious frown. I stood and lifted the photographs gently, frown deepening as a sorrowful, distant recognition swirled in my mind. Robert came to my side.
“What are those?” he asked, squinting to make out the images. I wiped the dust from them and offered them to him. “Engagement rings? Why do you have photos of engagement rings?”
I chuckled, shaking my head slowly. “I cannot recall. I assume that I was going to purchase—”
“Will you marry me?”
“—one,” I faltered, the strangest images of a bright hospital room flashing in my mind's eye.
Robert smiled slowly. “They're all silver with topaz.”
“Only the most beautiful for Kate,” I replied, then started when I realized that, vaguely, I could remember this. I sighed quietly, shaking my head. “Silver is an unappreciated, gorgeous metal, like the moon is neglected in favor of the sun. Topaz...Kate's favorite color was yellow.”
“Why not get a gold ring, then?” wondered Robert, not seeming to have noticed my momentary disturbance, or the strangeness of my remembrance.
“Because it is a vain color and rather unattractive, in my modest opinion,” I replied. Robert was rifling through the photographs curiously. I stopped him on the most familiar of them, drawn to it by some buried force. “That was her ring.”
Robert stared, transfixed by the simple yet breathtaking design. Seven little stones were set into the metal to form a heart. Carved into the metal on either side of the heart were tiny, delicate roses. I sighed, wishing that I knew more. What had she said, had I even asked her?
“I will gather my things and meet you downstairs shortly,” I said quietly, collecting the photos from him and placing them in my basket.
He gaped at me incredulously. “Aren't you going to stay, like your sister offered?”
I shook my head, finding his disappointment sharp. “No. I cannot.”
“You're home, though...” He sounded sad as I began inspecting the room for anything else I may still cherish.
“Sir, this is not my home. It is the hollow husk of a place that I cherished when I was young, but it no longer holds any of its former powers or safeties. So I will leave this farm and allow my sister to continue as though I had never come. It will be a dream to her, as these last years have been to me, and life will move ever-dutifully onward.”
Robert was stunned. “Right. I'll be...downstairs.”
I nodded curtly. When the door closed behind him, I took a deep breath to steady myself. This place was torment, staring at me from every corner and surface with blank, unblinking eyes. I could not stand how small the room was, how hot it felt or how the sky looked as though it was falling from its perch amidst the clouds.
I had to leave. My old life here was driving me mad! I could see the specters of my old self and the shadows of my loved ones, moving about in memories too long dead to bear. No, this place was too full of everything I had once desired—that I still wished I had had the opportunity to expand upon—to think of staying much longer than an hour. I paused.
One lonely hour, trapped between the night and the day...
“Leave me be!” I hissed to the forsaken echoes furiously as I finished with everything. I halted when I found my hidden niche with the photos of Kate and her old diary. Then, as I lifted those gently from their place, I saw my own journal. Blue and worn, the poor book certainly held more than should ever be asked of any instrument. I opened it carefully and glanced at a passage, heart suddenly racing. What forgotten treasures could it hold?
August 9th, 1967
I am watching Kate sleep as I write, and now I mark the thirty-seventh month of her stay. It feels paranoid and obsessive to count, but I cannot help myself. After seeing Lisa leave home, I keep expecting Kate to do the same, with no warning and only a note to tell me where she has gone.
But here she is, not an arm's length from me. I think she may stay here with me and never leave. I hope she will, but I worry for her. If she stays—and the thought of her leaving is very unpleasant—then she will have been greatly limited in her life. Has she experienced enough to know that this is the choice she wants to make? Ah, a question I fear asking her.
Of course, I cannot say that we are young. Others just our age are already married or have children. Should I propose? Looking at her face, I can never understand what I should do. Does she want me to wait?
Maybe creating a family with her is unwise. If she marries me If we have children, will they look like me? Could we dare, knowing what they will have to endure?
Well, as torn as I am between my wants and worries, I suppose only time will tell.
I closed the journal with a wistful sigh, enjoying that I had a way to understand as I placed it in the basket. The weight of the treasured items was comforting and all I needed from this place, all I wanted. I left the room, ignoring the shadow memories of Kate sleeping in the bed or the demon child staring out the window longingly.
As I was hunched climbing down the stairs, I heard Robert and Lisa conversing.
“...me when the last time he saw you before being taken by the N.S.I.S.D. was?” asked Robert, voice muted and coming from my right. Ah, the kitchen.
“The N.S.I.S.D.?” asked Lisa. There was some clattering. “Tea?”
“Oh, no thank you.” I could imagine him waving away the cup. “The National Science Institute for the Study of Demons, N.S.I.S.D.”
“I didn't know it had a name,” she replied. “I hadn't visited since the previous Christmas, though. I stopped by the hospital from time to time when I heard he'd been shot, but every time I came he was asleep. Let me tell you how disorienting it is to see Cory out cold at night,” she added with her giggling laugh. She had not changed as much as I had perceived.
“Gossiping?” I asked playfully as I entered. The thought of leaving so soon abruptly felt awkward, twisting inside me.
Lisa smiled. “I am about that age now, aren't I? Although, this young man seems to be entering the stage early.”
Robert frowned. “Oh, that's right...”
It was unsurprising to me that he had forgotten how much younger he was.
“Why don't you sit, Cory? You look like you're ready to bolt out the door,” commented Lisa with a keen gaze. “Or were you already prepared to leave again?”
Her words stung but I did not feel undeserving of them. “I want to visit you, Lisa, just not here. This place...It feels wrong.”
She nodded slowly and I guessed that she saw the same phantoms that I did. “Right. Well, I have your number, so I know we can make a date again. One thing, though. Mom and Dad are out by the old tree. They didn't want to be too far when you came back. Visit them before you go?”
I nodded, feeling strange with how she spoke of them, as though I might see them standing out there when I went. “Thank you, Lisa. I will miss you.”
“I've missed you, too, Cory.” For a moment, I was her elder brother again and we were lunatic children, chasing one another through the house. “Take care.”
When I left the house, the air was chilly and the sky was dark with clouds. The smell of coming rain was odd without the crops to accentuate it. I strode around the house, spotting the tree easily. It captivated my attention and made me lengthen my strides.
Its branches were weathered and creaking but they still hung protectively. The leaves covering it were beginning to yellow, while the occasional brown one fell to the ground, overeager.
I pressed my palm to the bark of the old tree, smiling sadly. The ghosts of my memory were there, and I could see me in my ignorant youth with Kate, sprawled out on a blanket. The sun was warm then, the world was kind...
The light rain on my shoulder was cold and kept me from completely losing myself to the phantoms. I felt like I could reach out and touch them, the children there. If I could warn them, maybe they could avoid this cruel fate.
“Was this the tree...?” asked Robert in a quiet murmur that could easily have been lost in the breeze. He came up beside me, touching it with wonder.
“Yes,” I choked, then sighed as I forced my grief away. I allowed my smile to remain and wiped silent tears from my face. If only there could be a day when I was not falling into tears. “This tree...There, I carved that for Kate when she asked me to. We were, oh, eighteen and fifteen?”
Robert's fingers traced the delicately carved lettering. The tree had begun to regrow the bark, smudging it somewhat, but it was just as gorgeous as it had first been. My own claws had carved it. I had never quite believed that my hands could craft anything so graceful.
“Wow. You never mentioned it,” he said, stunned. He continued to admire it.
“If you stride through a forest, every other tree is marked in a similar fashion. It is nothing particularly remarkable,” I replied coolly. I sighed sharply, looking back the way we had come. “I believe I am ready to leave now.”
He turned to me, eyes watchful. He smiled slightly, and I sensed that he was attempting to comfort me with the gesture. “We can come back again.”
“No,” I said quickly, sharply. The rain was coming down harder while the sky darkened slowly. “No, I would rather have the unfamiliar world than ghosts haunting me everywhere I turn.”
“Right. Where are your parents—Ah.” His voice trailed off weakly as we caught sight of the two headstones not forty feet from the tree. Robert was frozen while I strode over slowly to kneel between the two graves. I stared at the stiff lettering, the rigidity of the reality settling around me coldly.
Here lies the woman who could love me as her own and the man that could call me 'son'. My mother and father. I reached out to touch the coarse stones that were wet now. I knew well that the parent passed before the child; it was common and natural. What they had endured to reach these quiet, modest graves was harsh and cruel.
“I'm sorry,” I whispered, forgetting Robert's stoic presence. I wanted to believe that they could hear me, that the heaven they had known as reality existed and they were happy there. “I'm home too late, and not to stay.”
Robert's hand brushed my shoulder. “I'm sorry we couldn't get you out of there sooner.”
“No,” I sighed, standing tiredly. My body was only worn because of my mind's exhaustion, I knew. I wanted to sleep for days, hoping that the excess rest might be able to heal my hidden bruises. “No, those who cared did all that they had the power to do.”
When I turned around, the guilty expression that Robert wore told me he had been an individual set against my freedom. For the safety of young children or the purity of the world. Whatever his reasoning, I did not fault him for it. It would be foolish of me if I blamed all who spurned me.
“Well...” he mumbled awkwardly, glancing back at the way we had come. The fields that had once bore fruitful crops were barren now, allowing us to see the vehicle sitting on the street. He sighed, making his way in that direction.
Wistfully, I hesitated a moment longer in the rain before following Robert. glancing over my shoulder at the old house that was familiar and strange, I waved farewell to Lisa on the porch. The communication we had was silent but allowed us the closure we had been needing. Whether we would visit again, I did not know.
As I found my way into the confines of the car, I knew that I would sleep easier tonight. I felt more complete, more like myself after seeing my sister. I stared out the window and watched my old home disappear from view without remorse.
“I'm sorry for acting out of turn,” said Robert quietly after a few minutes of driving. I continued to stare out the window, heart aching when we passed Paul's old broken down home. “I've been forgetting that you're my patient and not my...”
“Uninvited guest?” I murmured. The town was behind us now. I looked over to see him scowling at the road.
“Friend,” he corrected, startling me. He glanced at me and sighed. “Yeah, I know, it's bad for a therapist to get attached. If you'd feel more comfortable switching to someone more competent, I would understand.”
I took a moment to compose myself. “No, no. I am confident in your abilities, only...A friend?”
Again, we were victims of silence while we each thought. The rain continued to barrage the car thunderously. Some hour or so later, when we stopped to rest and stretch, Robert cried out abruptly in anger. I looked over at him curiously, concerned about his well being.
“Robert, what is the matter?” I asked, all too aware of the strange glances passersby were giving us.
He sighed heavily, shaking his head slowly. “I've been played. We've both been played!”
“How?” He was wringing his hands and beginning to pace. I watched with a frown, disconcerted for a moment while I recalled that the man having what I could only recognize as a breakdown was my therapist.
Robert stopped in front of me, sneering. “There are hundreds of people who would do better at my job. The N.S.I.S.D. wants you to be considered a threat and come back, they want me to screw everything up and I'm doing a damn fine job of it!”
I nodded slowly, his realization making clear sense. After all, Beth had allowed me to leave without any defiance. Even as old as she was, that woman never backed down without a fight.
“And you agree,” he noted with a sigh, sitting heavily.
“Not at all. Robert, you are a good man and, while I do believe that I require assistance with my faculties, a companion is much more useful than paid assistance. In my experience, at least,” I added, seeing his incredulity.
He sighed again, not seeming comforted or convinced. “Sadly, the world's changed from what your experience was. You get more if you pay someone sometimes than you can from a friend.”
The rain was slow, a soft mist compared to the storm earlier. “Well, since you are both my friend and being paid, I do suppose I am still better off than with one of those other individuals you seem so overshadowed by, hm?”
Robert laughed and shook his head. “You're nuts.”
“The reason I need you, no?” I grinned, lifted from my sympathetic gloom when he smiled in return. “Shall we continue homeward?”
~~ * ~ * ~ * ~~
August 28th, 2010
My imagination or my age must be melting through my mind. The days have gotten shorter now, less difficult to drag through. This is something that Robert told me may happen after a few months—not weeks. Now he tells me that I must just be one who is swift in recovery.
I have begun to feel otherwise. I have begun to feel...tired. The days are shorter and easier, yes, but I am numb now to it. Most of me wants to be numb. Seeing Lisa helped nothing, and my brothers are unwilling to visit me just yet. They are both in difficult positions, and I would not be of any aid but only be an impedance.
Hope is not all lost yet, I suppose. I do not want this hope, though. It is sharp and bright, but would be painful to lose. The old window to the outside, my long lost childhood hope for a brighter life. A life I could call my own and perhaps children who could call me father. A wife, my fiancée...
Robert has created a list of all Katelyn Smiths in the city. If lain out from paper to paper, it might stretch the length of the front lawn! How had I never noticed just how common her name was? Or has it become more prevalent in recent years?
We begin searching next Monday, at eight in the morning. He will take a picture of her with him so that he will know her face and we will embark to search the city for her, address by address.
The very thought of a successful venture has my heart racing even now! But I am still wary. After all, she may yet live, but how does she live? For or against demons? Alone or...wedded?