The man lifted his head from the grass and looked around, his sight slowly adjusting to the dim predawn light. He was laying in someone's front yard (certainly not his own... he hoped), covered in dew as he watched a car drive by, oblivious to his presence. He rubbed a hand over his eyes and tried to remember the night before, but all he could recall was a fog surrounding him and something within it that he had been very afraid of. A chill passed through him although the morning was warm, and he slowly got to his feet and surveyed his surroundings.
The neighborhood was apparently middle-class, the street lined with cars that would soon be departing for work or school, and the leaves on the elm and maple trees were just starting to turn red and gold. He knew that he lived somewhere much like this, maybe even nearby... but he could not remember where.
He could not even remember his own name.
Jack Marshak cast a worried glance at the glass doors that separated Micki's room from the kitchen and wondered for the third time that morning if his friend was going to be all right. It had been almost a month since the night of the thunderstorm... since the night Lewis Vendredi had tried to return to life by possessing Micki's body and almost sacrificing Ryan Dallion. Jack had slept in the bed that used to be Ryan's, waiting for the nightmares that would inevitably come, ready to try and comfort her if he could... but she would never let him close, like she was afraid to accept his help.
Micki opened the doors and sat at the table, looking blankly at the hearty breakfast Jack had cooked for her. "Good morning," he said.
"Morning," she grunted, picking at the food with her fork. The dark patches under her eyes were maybe a little less intense today, and at least she would speak to him; Jack hoped that these were signs of improvement. After all the awful things they had seen, one would think that it would get easier with time to deal with them but, in fact, it was just the opposite. Each ate in silence; Micki never looked up from the table, and Jack was almost afraid to start a conversation. She had already broken down crying three times from what seemed to be nothing at all and refused to tell him why, which made it all the more frustrating.
After a few minutes Micki set her fork down and set her gaze upon Jack. "I'm going to see Ryan," was all she said.
"Are you sure about this? We've hardly spoken to him or his mother since -"
"Jack, I almost killed him. I remember holding the knife over his throat and saying the words." She turned away, forcing the unwanted memories back into the box she had made for them. "I have to know, Jack. I have to know that he forgives me, that he's all right." She refused to let Jack see the tears in her eyes.
"Micki, I... I think that would be fine. I'm sure seeing him will do you good; besides, it might help to get out of the store."
"Dammit, Jack, I'm not a child. You can quit walking on eggshells around me," she snapped. She shrank back in her chair as she saw the look of helplessness on Jack's face. "I'm sorry, Jack."
"It's okay." Jack covered her hand with his own and tried to smile a little. "I'll call Mrs. Dallion, tell her that you'll be stopping by."
"Thanks." She watched Jack walk down the steps and waited for his footfalls to stop before she went into her bedroom and pulled the slim bottle of vodka from her dresser drawer. A few drinks (and some mouthwash), and maybe she would be ready to face the world for another day.
The man wandered through the neighborhood, the fear at the back of his mind growing larger with every step. He had no idea what his name was or where he lived, where he was now or how he had gotten here. As the children walked past him, he had an almost irresistible urge to stop one of them and ask where he was... but some adult might notice and get the wrong idea. He walked along, running a hand through his unruly black hair as he looked for something that might trigger a memory, any memory-
The church. Across the street stood an old Episcopal church, St.Timothy's, and he was sure that he had seen it somewhere before. He trotted to the doors and stepped inside, listening to the sudden silence. The church was small with two rows of pews lined up facing the altar. He walked forward a few steps before a voice came from beside him, startling him. "Nice day, isn't it?"
"Yeah... yeah, it is." The man looked at the priest who had spoken to him; a man with graying hair, distinguished-looking, perhaps in his late fifties or early sixties and wearing dark glasses. "Excuse me, Father, but maybe you can help me. I'm not sure what to do."
"Sit down a spell; rest and be thankful, as the Lord once said. I'm Father McClaren. How can I help you?"
The priest listened as the man recounted his memories of the past few hours... his whole life story, as far as he could remember. The priest nodded as he finished and lifted a metal cane that was on the seat beside him. "It certainly sounds like you need some help. However, I suggest we start with the obvious; have you checked for your wallet?"
The priest laughed when the man did not reply; his face was beet red from embarrassment. "It's all right, son. I suppose it just slipped your mind."
The man checked his pockets, but the only things within was a crumpled piece of paper covered in childlike scrawls and a dog-eared photograph of two boys smiling. "It's not here," he said. "But I've got something that looks... looks like it was drawn by a kindergartner, and a photo. But I guess that wouldn't help you much." The old man chortled for a moment as the man smoothed the paper and looked up in one corner. "It says... 'James Dallion'." He looked back up at the priest but the man was no longer paying him any attention, as if the mention of the name were going to bring a ghost. "Father?"
"You can't be him, son. You... you just can't." The priest stood up and walked toward the door, carefully working his way down the row of pews with his cane in one hand.
"Why? Father, what's going on? Please... please tell me. I don't have anywhere to go."
McClaren slowly turned back to the man, a tear running down his cheek. "Your name might be James Dallion... but you can't be the James Dallion that I remember. Lord, that boy was so full of energy, full of life... I suppose you'd be about the same age." The priest walked closer to him and raised a bony hand. "Don't be afraid," he said as the man started to pull away. "It's how I see." The hand ran over his face, into all the nooks and crevices, exploring the skin and hair before the priest slowly lowered it.
He sat down heavily, almost falling to the floor before the man could help him to a seat. "It's not possible. You can't be James... but you are."
"Why not, Father? You knew him; why can't I be him?"
"Because fifteen years ago, I buried James Dallion in the Green Hill Cemetery, not two miles from here. He was nine years old when he died."
Micki had just pulled on her jacket when Jack came back up the steps. "I've called her; she said that Ryan will be home around three-thirty, and that you're more than welcome to come over." He stopped and looked at her for just a moment before he asked, "Where are you going?"
"For a walk. I just need to spend some time alone right now." Jack nodded and turned away, allowing Micki a quick sip before she hid the bottle in her jacket pocket. "I'll call a cab when I'm ready to come home, Jack; there's no reason to wait up for me."
"Okay," was all Jack said as she hurried down the steps and out of the store, away from the ghosts that would give her no peace, even in her dreams. She knew that Jack was worried about her - Hell, I'm worried about myself, she thought - but there was no way he could help her with the feelings she had.
She could see it in her mind's eye - how Jack would sit with his cup of tea sitting in front of him, untouched, growing cold as he agonized over his inability to do anything to help her. Then Johnny would thunder into the store and up the steps, engaging Jack in what he thought was intelligent conversation, phrases like 'Hey, how's it goin',' and 'Did you catch the Cubs game last night?', totally oblivious to the weight that she and Jack had to bear.
It wasn't fair to think that, and in her mind she knew it... but it was so much harder to deny in her heart.
"So you're saying I'm dead."
The man sat back in the pew and cradled his head in his hands. It could not be true, he thought, but it felt right... and that was what mattered. "How... how did it happen?"
"I was your priest from the time you were born, James. I watched you grow older, you and your brother Ryan, and I hoped that you'd both become good men when you grew up. Then, one September afternoon in 1975, I got a frantic call from your mother. She said that you were dead, you'd been chasing a baseball and get ten hit by a car. I presided over the service, I watched the casket lower into the earth... and then I watched your family fall apart. Your mother left one day and never came back, leaving your father to raise Ryan alone. I lost touch with them not long after, but I gather it was a hard road for the two of them."
Memories - an autumn afternoon, the scent of fresh leather of baseball gloves, the rough surface of a battered baseball - washed over him. He could see his brother throwing the ball, could see it bounce off of a car hood and out into the street, could see himself running after it... and watched helplessly as the red muscle car slammed into him and threw him into the air. He saw what life he had experienced flash through his mind - birthday parties, arguments between his parents, hunting worms with his brother, everything.
He did not know how much time had passed before he lifted his head and looked at the priest again. "I remember, Father. I remember who I am... who I was."
Father McClaren nodded and took James' hand in his own. "I don't understand why you're here, James. Perhaps I'm not meant to... but you need help, and I'll do whatever I can." The priest stood up and began walking toward the back of the church, navigating the area expertly without help of the cane. He walked into his office and sat behind his cluttered desk, which was overflowing with sheets of paper and news articles. "A lot of my boys help me out by reading to me; it helps me to feel normal. You used to read to me, too, back when I still had some vision left." The priest lifted a phone book and pushed it into James' hands. "Let's start by looking for your parents."
"But, Father... what will I say? I'm dead."
"Nonsense. You're breathing, you're solid. If I were a betting man, I'd wager good money that it would hurt if I hit you with my cane. I don't know how the Lord brought you here to me, but I think it has something to do with your family."
"But why?" James muttered, miserably sinking back into his chair.
"Maybe they need you right now, James. Or - maybe - you need them. Whatever the reason, we have to find them. Get to looking, boy." The priest snapped his fingers and James opened the thick Chicago area phone book, immediately going to the 'D' section. He ran his finger down the pages, looking for his own last name, finally running the tip of his nail down one line of text.
"Dallion, Anne H., 176 Berglund Court, Edgewood, Illinois. There's a number here, too. No Ryan Dallion or Ray, though." He scrawled the information down on a slip of paper McClaren handed to him and then stared at it for a few minutes.
"Well? Are you going to call her?" McClaren prompted.
"I... I don't think that this is the kind of thing that she should find out over the phone. If I'm going to do this, I need to do it face-to-face."
The priest smiled. "I was hoping that you were going to say that." He picked up the phone and dialed in a number. "Bill? This is Father McClaren, over at Saint Timothy's. Yeah, I was wondering if your men could keep an eye on the place for a few hours; I've got some business I need to take care of. Thank you, Bill. I'll see you Sunday, of course." He hung up the phone and smiled. "The benefits of being friends with a cop are without limit, you know. I suppose we should get going; Edgewood isn't far from here, and it should be pretty clear that I can't drive, and neither can you. It'll be a nice walk for both of us."
"I hope so, Father. I don't mind telling you, I'm real nervous about this."
"You wouldn't be alive if you weren't, son."
The leaves were falling over Micki as she sat in the park, embracing her in red and gold as she watched the geese swim lazily across the pond that stretched through the grass and trees. She had walked for over an hour to get here, trying to lose herself in the calmness of the day, but the memories would not be still. The scene replayed itself over and over in her mind: young Ryan lying unconscious on the desk, with her own hand holding a long butcher knife over his throat, ready to kill an innocent boy. She told herself again and again that it was not her fault, that the spirit of Lewis Vendredi had been the one controlling her actions... but she did not believe that for a moment. Every now and then, she took another drink from the bottle, careful to keep it hidden from prying eyes.
Alcohol had been a constant companion while she was growing up; her father had a major drinking problem when she was in school, and her sister Deirdre, two years her senior, had often snuck off to parties and come home drunk in the middle of the night. Micki had taken care of her many times and knew what alcohol could to to people, even though she never talked about it with Jack or Johnny; that was a part of her life she had wanted to keep separate from who she was now. But after the night of the thunderstorm, the nightmares and the guilt, it seemed almost natural, almost logical, to find solace at the bottom of the bottle. Her father had been dry for many years now, so she knew that she could stop... but right now, the pleasant dulling of her senses and memories were far more preferable than the reality of what she had done.
She had been there for several hours when she heard a gravelly voice say, "Excuse me." Turning around, she saw an aging man dressed in a gray overcoat with a white cleric's collar ringing his throat and dark glasses. "Mind if I sit for a spell?"
"Of course not." The man carefully worked his way to the other side of the bench, holding a metal cane out in front of him, and sat down.
"It's a beautiful view, isn't it, young lady? The geese always come here in the fall, huge flocks of them. You have the best seat in the house, you know." He looked out over the water and sighed. "There are some things that losing one's sight can't ever take away. Still, it would be wonderful to see them again."
Micki sat silently, lost in her own thoughts. Finally she said, "Father - ?"
"McClaren, young lady."
"Father McClaren, do you believe in redemption?"
"Of course. Everybody, no matter what they might have done, is deserving of a second chance in the eyes of the Lord." He paused for a moment, a thoughtful look on his face. "What's troubling you?"
"I... I'd rather not say. You wouldn't understand."
The priest laughed, a hearty sound that filled the air. "On this day, I think I might understand anything. But you have every right not to talk about it if that is your wish."
"But I do, Father. I have to tell someone, or I'll never... I'll never be free of what I've done. That's where I'm going today, to see an old friend. To beg his forgiveness." She tossed a pebble into the pond, watching the ripples spread out. "He doesn't remember me now. He doesn't even know it happened. How can he forgive me for what he can't remember that I did?"
"The heart knows. The heart always knows, even if we forget. If you truly mean what you say, then he will forgive you." He paused for a moment, listening to the tranquility of the park. "You have a heavy burden, too heavy for such a beautiful young lady."
"I know, Father. I know."
The sound of footsteps came up behind them, and a young man dressed in a blue windbreaker, T-shirt and jeans handed a bag of crumbled bread to the priest who began tossing pieces out to the swans, bringing them closer to shore. "Ah, James. Sit with us for a while and enjoy the day. This young lady is - ?"
"Micki." She took the hand that the young man offered her.
"James. Nice to meet you." He sat down between them and stared out at the water, his hands clasped tightly together. "Father, shouldn't we be going soon?"
"Nonsense, my boy. It's a fine day, and I haven't been out in far too long." the priest threw a handful of bread into the water and listened as the swans swam closer.
Micki looked at the newcomer and was almost shocked by how much like Ryan he looked. The same jaw, the same thin face, the same shade of hair... but his eyes were unclouded by the years of guilt that Ryan had experienced after his brother's death. But he wasn't Ryan; Ryan was a twelve-year old boy now, living with his mother in a house a few miles away.
James noticed the way Micki looked at him and said, "Do I know you?"
"No... no, I don't think so. You just remind me of someone I know, that's all."
"Oh." He tossed a pebble into the pond and said, "I seem to get that a lot today."
Anne Dallion slowly stood before the grave of her son and looked across the cemetery at all the other marble headstones that dotted the landscape like an orchard of death. She had not once come here alone in the past fifteen years, not once come here to visit her younger son, James. "Hello, Jimmy," she whispered. "I know it's been a long time, but I just... I just couldn't bear to come here. It hurt too badly, you see." She knelt by the stone and ran her fingers over the lettering. "Are you watching me now? Can you feel me here, still mourning for you after all this time? Ryan is doing well at school; he seems to be a better student than I remember... but then, that was a long time ago, wasn't it?
"I love you, Jimmy. I hope you know that." Tears brimmed in her eyes as she walked back to her car, parked near the cemetery gates. She had not walked inside this place since a year before... since the day she had entered her son Ryan's life once again. She still did not understand how her older boy - who was in his mid-twenties - had been turned into a child, but once the chance had been offered to try again she had taken it, vowing not to make any mistakes this time.
Of course mistakes had been made, but they were the typical parenting mistakes that mothers and fathers would make until the end of time; Ryan was once again the sweet boy she remembered, and she would never change that. Driving onto the street she checked her watch; it was almost time to get to Ryan's school and pick him up. It was going to be an eventful afternoon; his cousin Micki was coming by to visit, and she didn't want to be late.
"What time is it?"
Micki looked at her watch in response to the priest's question. "Almost three o'clock. I'd better get going if I'm going to make it on time."
"So should we, Father. It's still a mile or two." He took McClaren's arm in his own and walked to the sidewalk, Micki right beside them. "Are you headed this way?"
"Over to Edgewood? Yes, as a matter of fact I am. Would it be all right if I walked with you a while?"
A smile turned the corners of McClaren's mouth up. "Of course not, young lady. The more, the merrier, I always say. Come on, James; you have an important date to keep."
As they walked, the conversation turned to more typical matters; the weather, the Cubs and their perpetual missed chances for the pennant. As the group turned onto Berglund Court, Micki caught sight of the house she had broken into not a week before to kidnap Ryan and stopped cold, fear gripping her heart. The other men stopped and McClaren said, "What's the matter?"
"I can't go any further. I... just can't."
"Why not? It's just a street with houses on it, like thousands of others in the city. Surely there's nothing to fear in that." The priest tugged on James' arm for confirmation, but the young man was looking at a particular house about halfway down the block with the name Dallion stencilled in bold letters on a white mailbox.
Micki looked at where James was staring, right at the mailbox, and for an instant wondered how he could have such a reaction to it as well... then realized that the house was his destination as well. James... no, Jimmy. Jimmy Dallion, she thought. "Oh, my God. You're his brother, aren't you? You're Ryan's brother."
"Yeah, I am... but how do you know that? Do you know Ryan?"
"I used to. I'm his cousin, Micki Foster. I guess that makes me your cousin, too. But how did you get here? You're -"
"Dead? Yeah, so I've been told. Father McClaren used to be my priest, and says that he buried me." James looked to the priest, but the older man seemed to be looking at Micki in amazement.
"This cannot be coincidence, you know. James coming back to us on this particular day, and us meeting up with you as you are visiting his brother... it cannot be just a coincidence. The Lord meant it to happen this way." He shook his head. "It seems we all have an appointment to keep."
"What's wrong, Ryan?" Anne asked her son as he sat at the kitchen table, head held dejectedly in his hands. "Are you having trouble at school?"
"No, Mom. It's just that..."
"Just that what?"
"I had a dream last night, like there was a storm coming... only it wasn't a storm, it was something that was going to happen just to you and me. I dreamed about cousin Micki, too, only she was all sad like she did something wrong and felt bad about it. I didn't like it."
Anne sighed softly and sat down across the kitchen table from her son, wondering how such a young boy could have such foreboding dreams. They did not occur often, but when they did Ryan was greatly affected... and this seemed to be the worst one he had ever had. She did not know if it had something to do with Micki coming over to visit (she had not told Ryan yet), but she could not rule it out. "It's only a dream, Ryan. Dreams don't have to come true, not if we don't like them."
A knock came from the front door and Anne stood and went to answer it, hoping that Micki would be able to pull Ryan out of his funk. Lord knows, he's had enough reason to be in one, she thought, grasping the knob and pulling the front door open. As she had hoped, Micki was indeed standing there... but there was a man beside her, dressed as a priest; with a shock, she realized that it was her old parish priest, Father McClaren. "Father, what a surprise! I didn't know you were still in Chicago, or that you knew Micki."
"Hello, Anne. It's good to hear your voice, even if I can't see you. And, to be honest, I didn't know Micki until just a couple of hours ago. We didn't even know we were coming to the same place until just now." The priest cast a glance over his shoulder at a man that Anne couldn't quite make out. "We have... someone you should meet. Is Ryan home? He might want to meet our friend, too."
"Sure, I'll get him... please, come inside, sit down!" Anne briskly walked back to the kitchen as the trio walked into the house and into the living room. McClaren sat down of the sofa, while Micki and James stood, looking at the pictures of two boys hung on the wall.
"Look at us... we were close, Micki. I worshiped the ground he walked on... well, almost. We were as close as any two people could be, I think." Micki put a hand on his shoulder. "What am I going to say to them?"
"Say what you feel, James. That's all you can do."
Both turned around as Anne came back into the room with a young dark-haired boy following her, his eyes cast down to the floor. "Ryan, you remember Micki, don't you? And this is Father McClaren, who... who hasn't seen you in a long time. And this is..." Her voice trailed off as she looked at the young man who stood before her, his eyes full of tears.
"It's me, Mom. It's Jimmy." He wrapped his arms around his mother, holding her as tears flowed down both their faces.
"But how can it be? You - you died -"
Jimmy slowly pulled away from her and looked at Ryan, who had slowly walked over to them and was looking up at his younger brother in amazement. "I remember you, big brother."
"I remember you, too, short stuff." James knelt down and hugged his brother fiercely, holding on as if to let go would be letting go of reality, of life, itself.
"I know why I'm here now. I know why I had to come. You blamed yourself, Ryan; you blamed yourself for my death. But you didn't kill me, it was a stupid accident. Never think that you did something wrong, ever, because you didn't." He looked his brother in the eyes and smiled crookedly. "I had to come back from the dead to tell you that, so you'd better take me seriously."
"Jimmy -" Ryan threw himself around his brother as their mother knelt down beside them. Micki thought it was the strangest family reunion she had ever seen, but then she was right there alongside them in the middle of the living room floor, hugging and crying and thanking God for this chance to make things right -
She turned and saw Jack Marshak standing there in his bathrobe, looking at her in puzzlement. "Jack, how did you - ?"
Then the cloth under her hands was gone, as were the people she was embracing and the house she was in, replaced by her own dreary bedroom. She was kneeling on the floor, still in her bedclothes, tears running down her face for people that were not even there. "Oh, God, no..." she whispered, and then broke into tears again; not of joy, but of sorrow for the place she found herself in. It was all just a dream, she realized as Jack lifted her onto the bed and held her close, trying to console her, having no idea what she had just experienced. Just another damn dream, like all the others.
After Jack left the room Micki closed the doors and pulled her dresser drawer open, removing the bottle of vodka and unscrewing the cap. The liquid went down smooth and fast, removing the edge of yet another dream. One more down, she thought, and a lifetime to go.
She quickly took another drink, and another.
On a park bench in southern Chicago a man is sitting, casually writing words in a journal about events that he had never witnessed, but that he knew all too well. Every now and again he looks out over the pond at the swans gliding by and one of these times - just barely whispering - he utters a few words:
"And then there were two."
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This page was created on May 3, 2000.
Last modified on February 10, 2005.