Authors: Bryant Delafosse
I firmly planted myself in a chair and refused to move. They arranged for Deputy Sterling to stay behind and give us a ride back to the safe-house.
Dad offered to get us all coffee from a machine in the lobby, asking me to walk with him. Once we were alone, he started the questioning.
“Listen, I don’t care that there was alcohol. I just need to know why there was a date rape drug at that party.”
“I honestly don’t know,” I responded. “I’ve been racking my brain trying to make sense of it.” In my mind, the image of Nathan Graham winking at me lingered in my memory. “I never left her side the entire time we were there. Maybe it was meant for someone else altogether. Somebody’s idea of a joke. Dad, do you think someone was intentionally trying to hurt her or…” The words stuck in my throat.
He gave a shake of his head. “The doctor told me that the drug could seriously hurt someone if an incorrect dosage is given, especially if it’s mixed with liquor, but whether there was malicious intent…” He gave a shrug, handed me a coffee then waited patiently for the machine to fill another cup. “What do your instincts tell you?” He gave me a testing sort of look. My heart quickened.
I nodded and took a deep breath. “This thing’s really shaken me up, but I don’t know if it’s just because it involves Claudia.”
He nodded and handed me another cup of coffee, this one for Mom. “I’m afraid you know a little bit about how I’ve been feeling the last few weeks now.”
“Should I be worried, Dad?”
“Worried? No. Vigilant. Yes.” He watched as the fourth cup finished filling with coffee. “Emotions never lead you down the right trail. I think you need to analyze the whole evening in your mind and try and recall anything that might make you suspicious of anyone and then ask yourself, what was their motive?” He snatched up the last cup, gave me a look to make sure I had been listening, then turned to head back to the waiting room.
“Dad? Uncle Hank called me.”
He stopped without turning. “Yeah?”
“The Tatum woman asked him… no, insisted that he call me.”
Some of the hot coffee splashed out onto his hand and he angrily tossed the cup in a nearby trash. “And how do you suppose she knew Claudia’s drink was being spiked 50 miles away?”
“I don’t know.”
“There’s only one logical conclusion.”
“There could be another explanation.”
“That’s enough, Paul,” he growled under his breath, relieving me of one of the coffees I held—my cup as it turned out--and disappearing into the waiting room.
Mom made Mrs. Wicke promise to call them the moment Claudia woke up, then they left me and Claudia’s mother alone in the waiting room together. There was a long awkward sixty seconds of complete silence before Mrs. Wicke laid her magazine aside and asked: “Are we going to talk about this, Paul?”
“I am so sorry,” I pleaded. “I was an idiot!”
“This is the kind of stuff I expect from Claudia, but sometimes I forget you’re allowed to make mistakes too. It’s part of being a teenager. But these aren’t ordinary circumstances. You should have been extra cautious.”
I lowered my head, my fists unconsciously clenching and unclenching in my lap.
“As stupid as all this was, Paul, I’m not going to be mad at you,” she sighed.
“Mom told me about her condition, but I-I… I forgot.”
“The worst thing anyone can do is treat her any differently because of something she has no conscious control over.”
I nodded. “I’m really sorry, Mrs. Wicke.”
“I can see that you are, Paul.” She leaned forward and squeezed my arm, giving me a sincere yet bittersweet smile. “Claudia lost her father while she was still so young that she’s never really had any male role models in her life. Right now, the influence you have over her far outweighs my own.” She looked away and seemed to force her emotions back under control. “From now on, please consider the repercussions of what you do.” And with that she turned back to her long outdated Time magazine. “It says here that China is now the biggest importer to the United States. Did you know that?”
I gave her a smile and shook my head. “That’s very interesting.”
I awoke to a steady shaking from Claudia’s mother. Somehow, I had managed to fall asleep in the world’s most uncomfortable waiting room chair.
“Claudia is asking for you,” she told me.
I followed her to the room and noticed on the way that it was still dark outside. Glancing at my watch, I saw that it was only three in the morning.
She opened the door for me and beckoned me inside. The overhead light was set to its dimmest setting and Claudia looked small and fragile in the bed. When she saw me, her eyes lit up and my heart skipped a beat.
“Hey there, kiddo,” I said in my soft library tone. “You gave us a scare.”
She gave me her biggest smart-ass grin. “Trick or treat, sucker.”
I reached out and grasped her hand gently between two fingers, and in return, she grabbed it with a strength that contradicted her appearance.
I heard the door shut behind my back and recognized that we were alone from the increased intensity of Claudia’s eyes, indicating that she had been holding something back. “I saw him, Paul.” I could already see the tears gathering in her eyes. “I saw my father.”
My face must have been a mask of confusion.
“He was with me last night when you and the Deputy were walking me to the car and then inside the car on the way to the ER, I saw him sitting there on the other side of me.” The tears were streaming down her face now. “My father was consoling me, Paul.”
I was beginning to feel slightly alarmed. “Did your mom tell you what happened?” She gave me a look of confusion, so I continued, “It was roofies. Someone put it in your drink.”
Her brow wrinkled. “What does that have to do with what I just told you?”
I dropped into the seat next to her bed. “Claudia, I’m so sorry.”
“I should have protected you.”
“From what?” she snapped. “It’s not like I was attacked.” She sat up higher, winced as she accidentally tugged on the IV tube hooked to her arm. “What the hell gives? Why did this happen to me?”
Measuring my words carefully, I replied: “The way I figure it, with all the cups being passed around, it could have been meant for anyone in that room.”
Claudia peered up at me with eyes wide with almost childlike trust. “Yeah, I suppose you’re right.”
My own words sounded hollow to me, but my only goal had been to put her at ease. The last thing she needed right now was another theory, another reason to worry.
I laid my cheek on her hand and felt her lips brush against my neck. The next thing I knew we were kissing feverishly, almost as if we had only a few minutes of life left and had to make the best use of it as possible.
I dropped back into my chair as I heard footsteps.
Mrs. Wicke stepped inside and touched my shoulder gently. “How are you?” she asked her daughter.
“Tired,” she answered, staring up with eyelids growing obviously heavier by the moment. “I think I’m going to try to sleep some more.” She settled back into her pillow and closed her eyes.
Standing, I followed Mrs. Wicke to the door. “I think you should take my parents’ advice and go home to get some sleep,” I told her. “I’ll be okay here with her.”
Mrs. Wicke studied my face. “Are you sure, Paul?”
I stared her right in the eye and said, “I’m not going to leave her.”
All the muscles in her face seemed to relax at once and she squeezed my arm. “I don’t believe you will.” She gave my arm one last pat and, wrote down her cell phone number for me, making me promise to call if anything changed. As I started back into Claudia’s room, I glanced back at her one last time, a lone middle-aged woman walking by herself down an empty hospital hallway and a wave of sadness passed through me.
I snapped around to look in the other direction. Claudia’s room was at the end of the hallway and the only thing that faced me was an emergency exit door. I rushed inside Claudia’s room. She was fast asleep.
I sank into the chair next to the bed. I closed my eyes and tried to ignore the steady bleep-bleep, bleep-bleep of the heart rate monitor, shifting my position every couple of minutes to try and find the one soft spot on the chair that didn’t exist.
A cold breeze parts my hair and I open my eyes to find the source of the draft. I’m not in Claudia’s room. I am outside, in an open field overgrown with weeds. Less than ten yards away there are tombstones. It is still dark, but dark in a grey-tone celluloid sort of way. Everything is a shade darker than I know it should be.
A thought enters my mind: “This isn’t real.”
Bleep- bleep. Bleep-bleep.
I turn my head, searching like an actor for the edge of the curtain and catch movement at the threshold of my vision. I swing around, doing a full about-face and again I sense movement.
Bleep- bleep. Bleep-bleep
I stop moving and concentrate on staring into the darkness.
There, I see a figure, standing alone at a distance and watching me. He stands with a posture that seems to suggest that he will bolt soon.
This isn’t real, I tell myself.
I am dreaming.
Bleep- bleep. Bleep-bleep
. The sound is louder now, like a phone receiver pressed to my ear and the signal on the other end is getting steadily clearer.
It is a dream, I am sure of it now.
I take one last frenzied look around the field where I am standing and feel a presence directly at my back. I snap a look over my opposite shoulder.
His face is mere inches from my own. He wears a child’s smile. Not the smile of an innocent. Not that. Instead, it is the expression of a person whose development has been arrested. His eyes are crazed. That of an animal. The normal human empathy that exists within most people is altogether absent. Null and void. An empty vessel.
He looks through me as if I’m not even there.
Then I realize: He’s looking past me at Claudia.
Somehow he can see Claudia asleep in the hospital bed.
I awoke with a start and caught myself in the physical act of lurching forward, an almost defensive motion that I must have begun elsewhere.
I jumped and I heard a chuckle somewhere in the darkness of the hospital room. Goose flesh broke out down my arms. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I could finally make out that it was Claudia who had laughed. A reddish glow tinted the drawn shades behind her. Morning had arrived. She must have just awoken herself, because the TV was still off.
“You were dreaming, weren’t you?”
No point in denying it. “Yeah.”
“Same neighborhood, different yard,” I responded. After a moment’s hesitation, I added, “I saw a face.”
Claudia sat up straight in bed, her full attention on me now. “Familiar?”
“He was too close to get a good look at and could only see his eyes and his-his… smile.” I took a deep troubled breath. Only then did I catch myself. I refocused my eyes from the world within me to the world around me and Claudia. “Sorry. How are you feeling?”
“Are you kidding? I’m wide awake and ready to get the hell out of here,” she responded. “What’s the word on the street about when I can leave?”
Almost immediately, my cell phone began to ring. It was Uncle Hank.
“How’s she doing?” he asked.
“Better. She slept through the night.” I excused myself and stepped outside. “I haven’t told her yet that you called me last night at almost the same time that we were carrying her to the deputy’s cruiser.”
There was silence on the other end.
“Uncle Hank? Are you there?”
“Do you believe her? Do you believe the Tatum woman?”
“She seemed genuinely concerned. On the verge of hysterics. She had already called 911when she came to me.”
“That’s what Deputy Sterling told me. I was the only one who could have possibly known at that point… unless… Do you think she had information ahead of time and wanted Claudia to get hurt?”
There was a pause on the line before he answered. “Then why would she even bother calling 911? Or coming to me for that matter?”
“Then the only other explanation is that she’s telling me the truth about her visions.” I paused to let my words sink in, then I asked him, “When she talked to you and told you that our family was in danger, did she elaborate at all?”
“Yes, she told me that she has been dreaming things for many years, and lately, specific images involving this town and our family have been coming to her more frequently while she’s been at the church.”
“Should we trust her?”
“Normally, those who purport to be psychics or mediums are one of two things, con artists or worse.” There was some shuffling on the other end, then the sound of a door closing. “Here’s the thing, Paul. We are, all of us, partly spiritual creatures so we have the potential to communicate on that level, but a lot of this so-called fortune telling is done for monetary gain or an attempt to change the future. This openly displays a lack of faith in Divine Providence which is abhorrent to God, who wants us to confidently place ourselves fully in His saving graces without question.”
Then he sighed heavily and continued, “Most of all, our God is a loving, protective God, and He knows that there is the possibility that we might take counsel from an entity not sent by Him.”
In my mind, I had a clear vision of an apple plucked from a tree.
“Something evil? Is that what you’re saying?”
“The potential is always there.”
“So are you saying that we shouldn’t trust her?”
My uncle sighed heavily. “This has been weighing quite heavily on my mind lately, and to be completely honest, I find my heart as a man and as a representative of the Church at odds with each other. I’m afraid that I have to talk to you about this later, though, Paul. The sunrise mass starts soon, and I have to get ready.”
“Are you coming to see her?”
“I’d planned to but apparently Jack’s afraid I might be followed.”
Just when I was starting to think life might reach a certain degree of equilibrium, someone would say something that would remind me just how much danger we were all still in.
We said our goodbyes and I returned to Claudia, who was watching some ghost hunter show on the Discovery channel. Given what she had told me earlier about seeing her father, it was a little unsettling.
Mrs. Wicke called around eight o’clock and spoke with Claudia on her cell phone as one of the deputies was driving her to the hospital. It was a longer than normal conversation, and I actually heard Claudia tell her mother that she loved her, which told me everything I needed to know about Claudia’s current state of mind. She was feeling vulnerable and scared and her instinct was to cling to her mother.
Dr. Patel came in around nine o’clock, checked her vitals, and cleared her to go home. Claudia called her mother but her call went to voicemail. Ten o’clock came and went and Mom and Dad finally arrived.
“Where’s Pat?” Mom asked.
I saw Claudia stare down at the phone in her lap, concern etched into her face.
Mom and Dad traded looks. Dad excused himself and went outside to make a phone call. While Mom distracted Claudia, I stepped outside and listened as Dad asked where the hell Deputy Sterling was and why hadn’t he checked in.
“What’s going on?”
“They’re trying to get a fix on his position now,” Dad muttered to me. He turned away from me and snapped, “Where?” He started down the hallway toward the exit. “I’m on my way, too. It’s not too far from here.”
I jogged after him. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t have all the details yet. Stay here with your Mom,” Dad yelled over his shoulder.
I knew there’d been an accident before Mom’s cell phone rang twenty minutes later. They found Deputy Sterling car upside down in a ten foot ravine off of Farm Road 123. Deputy Sterling had a massive concussion.
Pat Wicke was dead.