Note: I still check back on reviews and comments. If you made it this far, let me know what you think. In particular, some of the early scenes are mindnumbingly slow & boring. But each time I read through them, I feel like the story needs them. Let me know what scenes are particularly bad, and I will try to work on them. Thanks.
Sometimes, I Can't Even Breathe
March 20, 1994
"I can't believe it's been five years." Abby could barely contain her joy over their arrival as the train pulled into the Pueblo station. Trying to look through the walls, her emerald eyes pulsed with excitement. "It feels like I just left yesterday. I wonder if anything has changed." Her solid black dress couldn't hide the brightness of her anticipation.
"A lot has changed," Owen said. Wearing a black loosely fitted suit and uncomfortable new oxford shoes, he dreaded this return. It hadn't been as long for him. "I read about it all of the time." Sometimes he replied to those letters, too. He wished he could have found away to avoid this trip. He hated funerals.
Owen more than just read about the city. Drawn by the magnetic pull of guilt, he had returned for several bittersweet, lonely pilgrimages.
The first time was more than a year after he left. Abby agreed to an invitation from Owen's parents to live with them. Both of his parents. Owen's mother was far too forgiving. ("He's trying to be better. Give him a chance.") His parents were kind and accepting, at first. They helped Abby obtain proper documentation and enroll in school. Not surprisingly, she didn't fit in with the rest of her classmates; she had so little in common with them, but home life was more or less happy. For a short while, it was enough for them all to be together.
Returning one day from his sophomore classes at the university, Owen discovered his father enduring a painful relapse – painful for everybody, but him. Abby straddled his mother, trying to protect her from his irrational anger. Pulling him away, Owen defended them and threatened, "If you ever touch either of them again, I will kill you."
What troubled Owen the most is that he knew that he could kill him; it would be easy. He had done it before. Memories came flooding back and he boarded the last evening train to Pueblo to find some comfort. He never discovered what triggered his father's relapse.
Abby place her hand on his shoulder and pulled him out of his funk. "This is our stop," she said. "Are you okay?" Owen nodded without a word.
In the station they found a bank of lockers for their belongings. It only cost a quarter. Unburdened from their backpack and camping gear Owen kept his bouquet of white lilies.
On the train station steps, the spring air tossed Abby's long hair playfully. She inhaled a breath of the chilled morning air with an enthusiastic and infectious grin, "I love this air," she said. "It makes me feel alive." Then she stared north toward the most obvious change in the city skyline. "Where's the smokestack?" she asked.
"It's long gone," Owen answered. "It collapsed in the fire. Let's go. We have a long walk ahead of us." He grabbed hold of her hand. He needed it for support. Owen wasn't looking forward to this day. He just wanted to get it over with.
"You don't think we'll be late do you?"
"No, we'll be fine. We have plenty of time."
She pulled away from his intertwined fingers and raced to the center of the First Street Bridge with her borrowed ballerina flats flapping on her heels. "Look," she said with a jubilant smile. "I can walk across the river!" Her joy was infectious. Almost forgetting their destination, he jogged to catch up to her. Across the street a family crowded the walkway with fishing lines extended into the Arkansas River. They celebrated as their youngest shrieked from a capture of a lively rainbow trout.
That first time Owen returned to Pueblo, he left without even telling Abby. After disembarking from the train, he made the nighttime journey across the bridge. He thought he must know over half the names in the Verdant Overlook Garden for Peaceful Repose. He searched by flashlight for hours through the all of the many grave markers before he finally found the one he sought. A small marker in the Potter's Field section of the cemetery: Evelyn McTaggert. When he finally returned to a fretful Abby, his father was gone.
A few months later, he made a second escape after the police officer arrived at their door. They had located his father's corpse. Owen never understood this drive to just give up. Complete abandonment of all hope. He could never do that. Now, another voluntary sufferer dangled beneath the branches of that enormous apple tree; his father was eternal fodder for the harpies.
A violent life from a violent death that Owen thought he understood too well. He just couldn't reconcile it with his own life. And how can I share this with Abby? She has no sympathy for weakness. Owen had his own weaknesses – his own temptations. But Abby always knew. She pulled him away from that precipice; she kept him clean. Why does my father's suicide affect me so much?
Owen thought he knew the answer - Erasmus. They were all cowards: his father, Charlie Langston, and Father Erasmus. They just gave in and abandoned the struggle. Somehow he knew that Erasmus didn't belong to this group, he didn't live with the same sense of despair. Owen couldn't fathom what made him choose the weak-hearted path. Erasmus was kind and compassionate beyond reason, but he just gave up without even trying.
Since then, Owen made many other escapes to Pueblo, mostly at night, to seek compassion from those left behind.
After crossing the bridge, they completed the rest of the walk in quiet solemnity. An hour later he stood over the shattered, desecrated concrete marker. "Whore" was now permanently chiseled across her name. "Moira", that's what it should have read. For the first time in five years Abby joined him in supplication. He said a few prayers, but the suffocating pressure of Moira's memory was acute. Sometimes, he couldn't even breathe.
"I heard she infected at least six people," Abby said. She was encouraging as always when he drifted into his own path of despondency. "Doesn't that help? You may have saved some."
"No, it doesn't," Owen said. He woke up from nightmares, dreaming about that night. The sticky, sweet river of blood sprayed across his hands and face. "I didn't know anything about her. And that makes all the difference."
"Maybe you did know her," Abby whispered. She squeezed his hand and held it tight for a few seconds. "Just breathe." Sympathy and a dangerous compassion radiated through their link. Why did he sometimes wallow in the memory of death, when he woke up to this miracle of life every day? She wrapped her arm tightly around his waist. "She was the real vampire," Abby said. Her infectious calm flowed through him.
Owen deposited a lily at her grave with a simple prayer for her soul. Someone should think of her. This memory tethered Owen to the bottom of the dead river, holding him to Pueblo. "I don't think I can do it," Owen whispered. "I don't think I can move to Atlanta. It's too far away. I'm needed here," he pleaded. "Moira needs me. Somebody should mourn her passing." He required this emotional release - an addiction more powerful than drugs.
"I'm not letting you give up. You need this more than I do." She was pretty determined when she made up her mind. "You know you're alive because you have this struggle," she said. "Those that give up – they're the dead ones."
Owen withdrew his hand from hers and placed another lily on the marker with another prayer. Abby continued, "I only applied to one school so that I could be near you." As Owen dropped another floral memory, Abby continued to try. "There are not nearly enough lilies in the entire world for my crimes. Yet you never gave up. Trust me to be there for you."
"I have an idea." Owen cracked a slight smile at her optimism. Two hundred and forty years old with the boundless optimism of youth. She lived in the future, while he remained shackled to the past. "I'll save one for you," he said handing one of the two remaining flowers to Abby.
Owen nodded. "That's all you need. We have one more grave," he said. He maneuvered her half way across the cemetery to the marble stone in the tree-lined shady section. Several nights he fell asleep in the moonlit shadow of this tree. The cold ground reminded him of the concrete floor of the steel mill. He found comfort here - Selkie. She never gave in. Life was hard. Now she found herself in a well deserved place of peace. Yet, he missed her just the same.
He left another lily on the soft grass next to her obelisk – a sheltered buoy in the storm. He said a short prayer for her memory. So distracted by thoughts of Selkie, he failed to notice the presence seated on the bench beneath the tree.
"It should be you," Jane said.
Abby squeezed his arm in anger, while Owen managed to remain calm. Jane - he could handle. He turned around and saw her. He gained strength from her anger. "You're right," he responded, "but she earned her rest. You kept her in a prison. I set her free."
"I tried to protect her from garbage like you. That's all I ever wanted ... to keep her safe."
How dare she defile Selkie's memory? Owen wanted to respond with a furious taunt, but he took a moment to study her. With wrinkled, sallow skin, Jane looked like she aged thirty years since he had seen her. She wore a black dress of mourning in an archaic style. Purple bruises showed through lace pattern at the inside of each elbow joint.
"Are you all right?" Owen asked out of concern. "Can I do anything for you? You're not taking drugs are you?"
"How dare you?" Jane quickly covered the scars and bruises with each hand. "You drink from that poisonous well. I don't debase myself by abusing drugs! I use all natural remedies. Go away; leave us alone."
"Let's go, Owen," Abby said. She pulled him away from Jane and over towards the arriving crowd. The memory left Owen with a sour feeling. Selkie's grave should be a place of peace. Jane's verbal desecration was just as evil as the physical desecration was for Moira's.
Nearby, a backhoe idled next to a freshly dug grave. People began to gather around a temporary canvas shelter, children laughing and playing, and adults joking with each other. A little girl in a pretty pink dress ran up the plastic green carpet which covered the mound of fresh dirt. They should show more respect.
Owen and Abby found themselves in a group of people around Aileen. "I'm sorry for your loss," Owen said trying to find the right words. Abby nodded in agreement with a sad smile and puppy dog eyes.
Aileen studied Abby, perhaps surprised by her youth. She had never met her, but over the years Aileen wrote him asking how he was doing. Owen sometimes returned a quick note. He avoided any subjects about himself, but rambled endlessly about Abby.
She was the one who informed Owen about the funeral. "Don't be sorry," she said with a brilliant smile. "I'm not. This is a celebration not a mourning. Five years of joy I never thought I would have." Then she asked how school was going.
Owen mumbled a vague attempt at an answer, but Abby quickly interjected. "He just read for his masters in disease pathology," she bragged. "Next year he is interning at the CDC while working toward his PhD … at Emory University in Atlanta."
Aileen wouldn't cry at the funeral, but she teared up at this news. "That's wonderful," she said and embraced him in a tight hug that caused everyone to stare. After a few moments she released him and asked, "Do you remember when I first met you? This was my wish for you."
"I haven't accepted, yet," Owen said glancing toward Jane sitting on the lonely bench. She glared at him while squeezing the lily into the ground with her shoe.
"What do you mean? Of course you're going," Aileen insisted. She seemed thrilled with the prospect. "You're going to do something great something about this awful disease." Then she turned to Abby, "What about you?"
"I'm going to be a phlebotomist," she answered trying to maintain a serious expression.
Aileen seemed at a loss on how to respond to that one. "That sounds interesting," was all she said.
"No, she's not," Owen said. "It's Georgia Tech for her to study engineering. She wants to build bridges."
The milling crowd began to grow. Aileen called to her husband. "Tony, come over here," she said. "Do you remember Owen?"
"Of course." Tony wore a blue suit which hung loosely on his shrunken frame. "I'm keeping a close eye on you from my Denver office. I was sorry to hear about your father."
"That was a long time ago," Owen said, but he was sorry, too. He still couldn't understand after all these years.
A hearse pulled up next to the curb. Tony and a few other men gathered alongside the rear door as the funeral home operator opened the liftgate. They pulled out a white casket, which was far too small, and carried it over to the grave. The director set up kneelers and a temporary podium. Owen stood in line behind the others. He was surprised when the director opened up half of the casket for a final public viewing. The line of people became more solemn, but the little girl in the pink dress danced next to the open casket.
Abby stood beside him while Owen paid his last respects. She didn't know the child. Neither did Owen, really. A sweet little boy, falling asleep in his lap while dreaming of Abby-like angels. Owen had held him tight.
He was stirred from the prayer by the little girl's dancing motions next to him. "Did you know my brother?" she asked.
"A little," Owen answered. "When he was younger. What's your name?"
"Angelica," she said with huge grin and a curtsy.
"That's a beautiful name. Where did you get it?" Owen was a little worried about the growing line of people behind him, but they seemed unhurried.
"My brother chose it. He called me his little angel."
Owen studied her for a moment in the sunlight. She did look a little like Abby with her long blond hair in ribbons. "I'm sorry about your brother. I'm sure you'll miss him."
She placed her hand on his shoulder and gave him a consoling look. "I know my brother's dead," she said, "but maybe he'll get better."
"Maybe he will," Owen said. He stood up and took her hand. "I have a present for you; if your mother says it s okay." They walked over to Aileen with Angelica on one hand and Abby on the other. Bookends.
They strolled over to Aileen chatting quietly in the group. "Mama, this man says he has a present for me." Man?
"What is it, Owen?" she asked with a curious wrinkle to her eyebrows. He withdrew the cracked, graying, wallet sized photograph from his pocket. Owen didn't know why he kept it with him all these years. Perhaps for Caleb's funeral. Right now, it felt right to present it to this dancing, energetic child.
Aileen gasped when she saw it. "Where did you get that?" Owen shrugged not really sure how to answer - from an old man in an alley. "Of course you can give it to her."
"She's beautiful," Angelica said when Owen handed her the picture. "Who is she?"
"She's your mother," Owen said. "I remember how she used to hold you. Like she never wanted to let you go."
Angelica touched the photo like it was a fragile, ethereal spirit. The same way he noticed Abby touching the lithograph of her own father in the darkness.
"Thank you," Angelica whispered. "I never knew what she looked like." She turned to Aileen, "Look mama, she's beautiful."
"Yes, she is," Aileen said. She held her hand to her mouth, reigning in tears. "That was very nice of you. You're a special person."
Owen was embarrassed by the compliment. There was nothing special about him.
Tony had taken his spot behind the podium, with a stack of index cards, and tapped on the microphone to confirm its volume. The crowd started to quiet in anticipation of his eulogy. "Thank you everybody for coming," he announced. "Today we recall and cherish the brief life of our adopted son, Caleb. Sentenced to death from the day he was born, but I was blessed to call him my son the past five years. His courageous enthusiasm to enjoy life taught me more than any one of you out there ever did."
He flipped the cards to the second page of his notes. "I remember one day, I planned off from work, but I was asked to come in - as so often happens with my job. Caleb was about eight and already playing in the new wooden swingset in the backyard of our Denver home. I watched in wonder as he attached cardboard boxes with duct tape to cover the outside legs of the three story tower.
"I decided to call in and ask for someone else to take the case. I made a terrible choice and stayed home. It was the day of the infamous Paulk double murders. Evidence needs to be gathered and analyzed within 24 hours of the murder for the best chance of obtaining a conviction." Tony stopped his talk for several blasts of a dry, hacking cough. "I should have made that my priority, but I didn't … I couldn't. The lead investigator on the case, Detective Baran, received enough notoriety that he is now my boss." There was a quiet chuckle from the police officer contingent of the crowd.
"Caleb and I stayed hard at work until we covered the entire outside of the structure. He kept me busy all day. Then we painted it white, with large "USA" letters on the side. We even attached tail fins pointing from each corner. Finally, after a quick peanut butter and jelly sandwich dinner, we were ready for blast-off. He asked his mother to make a third sandwich for the trip." Tony's pager, hanging on the side of his belt, vibrated interrupting his talk. He glanced at the number and fished a prescription bottle out of his pocket. He washed down a white horse pill with a little bit of water. Owen wondered as a few others in the crowd mirrored the same action.
"Where was I?" Tony continued. "That's right … blasting off. Caleb and I pretended to shake from the vibration of the powerful rocket engines. It calmed down quite a bit when broke through the ionosphere. I had to look up that word, but Caleb knew it. After a quick space walk to repair a few loose panels with our plastic, Fischer Price hammer, we were ready for our final journey. I asked him where we were headed."
"He pointed to the brightest star in the sky and said, 'Right there.'"
"'What happens there?' I ask."
"He says, 'That's where Lazarus lives.'"
"And we spent the evening in the stars with Caleb's brother. The extra sandwich was to share with him. I had been content to wander through life. Caleb taught me to savor every moment."
"Once I thought that 'we are the sum of the choices we make.' So chained to the expectations of my past, I could not even find the strength to graduate from college. Many people make bad choices that turn out okay, while others make good choices that turn out poorly. You can't measure someone by such luck."
"Another wise man told me that we learn from our past, but we are not defined by it. 'We are our next choice.' Erasmus was a smart guy, but I don't buy this idea either. I became so frightened of making bad decisions that I made as few as possible."
"When Caleb came to live at our house, he knew his time was limited. He didn't mourn or complain about his fate; he still enjoyed life. This young boy, who was born under a death sentence, taught me how to appreciate life. The 'Why' is important. Why we make decisions defines who we are."
"I made a terrible choice to spend that day with Caleb, but it was a wonderful decision. The murderer may have escaped. I would like to think we would have caught him sooner had I been there. Instead, I got to travel to the heavens and witness the joys of life through the eyes of a dying boy. A terrible choice for all of the right reasons. I would make the same decision all over again. If only I could."
The crowd was quiet throughout the eulogy. The words made so much sense, that they were liberating. Owen felt the shackles binding him to the bottom of that river shatter. He could swim free for the first time. A revelation such as this should be accompanied by fireworks or at least Molotov cocktail-like explosions. But Owen restrained his celebration; he simply squeezed Abby's hand. She knew he felt something, but could only guess its meaning.
Following Tony s speech, the rest of the crowd milled around the cemetery while the casket was closed. Angelica ran to the front of the line and kissed the metal shrouded coffin. Owen followed her as she then ran back to her father's side. He approached Tony and said, "That was beautiful. You were like Moses parting the Dead Sea for me."
Aileen intervened, "You mean the Red Sea, honey. Moses parted the Red Sea."
"Not for me. It was the Dead Sea... or maybe it was a dead river." He reached up to shake Tony's hand in thanks.
Angelica held on tight to her stepfather s other hand. "Daddy, do you think we could take the rocket to the stars tonight?"
"You want to visit your brother?" Tony asked.
Angelica nodded with a smile. "I want to see both of them. Maybe my mother, too. She shared the photograph with her father."
Abby said, "Does this mean that you are going to Atlanta?"
"Yeah, I think it does," Owen said.
"I knew you would!" Aileen exclaimed with another hug. "Maybe you can start working on AIDS right away. We could really use it."
"I have a feeling that there might be a breakthrough any time now. There are so many good research projects in that area. Someone is bound to find more effective treatments soon," Owen said. "As an intern, I may not get to work on AIDS. I go where I'm assigned."
After a little more chat. Owen and Abby bid them goodbye and strolled, hand-in-hand, back to the train station. "If you don't think they will have you studying AIDS, is there any other disease that you can work on there?"
"Perhaps I could suggest one," Owen answered. "I'm having a little trouble with the name. The Y just doesn't seem to work."
"What name were you considering for this strange, new disease?" Abby asked as they crossed the First Street Bridge.
"I was thinking something along the lines of Acquired Bloodborne, Yikes or ABBY, but it doesn't sound very professional. Instead, maybe ABSS would be better - Acquired Blood Sucker Syndrome. I think it might be a little more appropriate. I might have to change your name to Abss."
"Oh no you won't," Abby said giving Owen a reason to chuckle.
They collected their back packs from the storage lockers and changed into more casual clothes for the long hike to the park. Abby kept hold of that white lily, but she didn't once ask what to do with it. She knew him well enough - Owen had something in mind for the flower.
Back over the bridge Abby raced ahead once again. They left the sidewalk and started north along the path running beside the western side of the river. Three blocks later, they crossed the demarcation of the Fourth Street Bridge's shadow into the sunlight. A metallic click sounded. Abby kicked something in the river bank's sand. "What's that?" she wondered and picked it up from the ground.
It was a silver cross with a fine linked chain. "This is the spot," Owen said. He lifted the chain and wrapped it around the lily. Handing it back to Abby he said, "It's your turn. This is where you can let your past go. Father Erasmus died here - your last victim."
Abby held the cross and flower in her hands. "What was it that Tony said, that affected you so much?"
Owen wasn't sure. It was just another way to look at the past. "When Erasmus died here, I thought he was just like the others who gave up. I have no idea which 'truth' is the right 'truth'. It's all about faith. Erasmus was at a crossroads of two impossible choices – live with the tragedy of compulsive murder or accept the uncertainty of his own death. Erasmus had to believe that his death would mean an eternity in torment – for a priest it was suicide. His entire faith was built on that idea. I couldn't understand him, and I couldn't stop him. My father and Charlie Langston struggled with the pain of life and succumbed. Tony said, 'the why matters'. Erasmus didn't surrender, he made a choice to end his life rather than drink human blood. He chose to risk the mercy of God, rather than kill someone. Does that make sense?"
"Sort of," Abby answered. "His death was an act of bravery rather than cowardice. You know there may be worse things than eternity in hell."
"Like eternity as a twelve year old."
"I remember those days. You made my life hell," Owen laughed. "It's just like the difference between you and your uncle. You both needed blood to survive. He was evil and you are nothing like him. He enjoyed creating fear, while you hated it."
"What about you? How does this free you?"
Owen shrugged. "It doesn't really. Not completely. I chose to kill because I thought it was a desperate act of love. I was misguided, but I never gave in. I was better than your uncle. I can live with that … at least until my next choice."
Abby closed her eyes and awkwardly mumbled a few words a prayer for this man she didn't know. When ready, she tossed the flower and chain into the Arkansas River and watched it drift with the current. "How far do you think it will go?"
"I think it will make it all the way to the Mississippi. It has a long journey ahead of it."
His words were betrayed almost immediately when the flower hung up on the first spillway. "Awww." Abby moaned. "I thought it would make it." It was the same spillway which once caught Blaise's body.
"Maybe I should wade out and give it a push," Owen said. "It's never easy." He wished he had a couple of garbage bags to use as hip waders.
Across the river dozens of cars pulled into the parking lot of the enormous white cinder building. "What is going on over there?" Abby wondered. "That's not the mill."
Owen took his eyes off the lily for a moment and glanced at the building. "It looks like second shift is arriving for work at the semiconductor plant. Built on the grounds of our old home. Over two thousand people work there now."
Just then he saw a ripple and a splash at the spillway. A fish jumped over the spillway, bumping the flower loose from its mooring. "Look it's free." Abby laughed and started running after it down the path.
I am, thought Owen.
She ran down the entirety of the path while the flower surged across one spillway after the other. Owen trailed behind following the sound of her joyous peals in the wind. She ran much faster than he. After crossing the final spillway, the flower accelerated - carried by the rapidly flowing river until it faded in the distance. "Bye Erasmus," Abby whispered just as Owen caught up to her.
Jane made the lonely trek back to the old Barleysmith house just like always. Most days, some sort of memorial service was held at the cemetery and she dressed appropriately. She had no idea that today would augur such a large crowd … and that boy! How dare he approach Selkie's grave. Having the gall to be alive.
Comfortable enough to live with Rufus's inheritance, Jane shuttered the store and relocated to the mansion. Doctor appointments, occasional shopping, and visits to Selkie's resting place occupied her days. Jane was content; she led a full life.
She unlocked the four latches to the front door and rested her purse on a table just inside. A black cat greeted her on entrance. Lights weren't needed; she could see just fine. After a change into old clothes she returned to the kitchen, ready to get dirty. Before beginning her task, she downed a huge glass of sweet orange juice along with two enormous prescription iron pills. The doctor had no idea why she wasn't responding to the treatment.
Fully hydrated, she burrowed into her refrigerated supplies for a hypodermic needle and rubber tubing. With the tourniquet pulled tight by her teeth, she probed her elbow joint until she found the vein. Sharp and intense pain accompanied the jab, but she was used to it. I can't believe that boy thought I was abusing drugs. Bloodletting is a healthy release.
She laid back and allowed the blood to trickle into the thick plastic bag. Her own life energy seemed to drain along with it. For a few moments, or maybe longer, she fell asleep. When she awoke, the sun had nearly set and the bag was bloated, near bursting. Blood dribbled down her arm around the needle.
After withdrawing the syringe, Jane rinsed off her arm and returned the blood to the refrigerator. Weak from the bloodletting, her hands shook as she prepared a light evening meal of beans and broccoli, very slowly and deliberately. By the time she was finished eating, night had fallen. She tried to ignore the agonizing wail.
Finally, after her dinner was complete and the dishes cleared, Jane journeyed down the basement steps with the bag of her blood in hand. As soon as she opened the door, the rumbling cacophony – an amalgam of pain and need - echoed up the stairs. "Please, I need food," he cried.
"Calm down. I have something for you." She tossed him the bag of blood. "Be careful with this. They're hard to come by. Don't tear it."
Ravished with thirst, Javier ignored her pleas and dug into the PVC bag for the drug he craved. After sucking down the contents, his eyes transformed to a blend between the blue and his normal brown and the acne began to clear. He still reeked of decay. "I need more," Javier growled. "Maybe just another bag."
"I don't have any more," Jane said. "Just one bag every few days. She sat down next to Javier and cradled him in her arms. If I could give you more, I would." She caressed his cheek with care.
"She's out there, isn't she? I can feel her," Javier said. "Just let me go. I can collect my own food."
"I can't do that," Jane rubbed the top of his head, pressing down his filthy, matted hair. She kissed his forehead. "You won't be safe. I have to protect you."
Javier moved his teeth toward Jane's neck and teased the skin covering the jugular with his teeth. He heard the blood coursing just beneath. It called to him.
"You don't want to do that," Jane said. She didn't know how, but she heard his thoughts almost as though they were her own. This close, the ideas muddled together. "What would happen to you if I died down here? You would be stuck without any food."
"Please," Javier begged again, "I'm a prisoner anyway."
"The world is an ugly place. I can protect you from all that evil."
Owen's words came back to her as she held Javier. You kept her in a prison. I set her free.
Maybe she was holding him back. "Owen is in town. He is here with her," Jane said as she unlocked the shackles, trusting Javier to do the right thing.
They settled in for a relaxing evening at Lake Pueblo. Their camp was established at the base of the waterfall rushing from the opening in the dam. The water collected in a smooth, deep pond before it roared down the river. Fish jumped from the water chasing insects. "I thought the river was dead," Abby said.
"It used to be," Owen said. "The state built a facility up river to clean the acid runoff from the mines. Then they stocked the river with trout and other fish."
There the two of them established camp. After a little bit of struggle, and some heated discussion, they assembled the aluminum poles for their new tent. You would think the bond would make teamwork a little easier during these moments. Instead they seemed to feed off of each other's tension.
At least until Abby found the humor in Owen s clumsiness. "Just read the instructions," she said. She picked up one of the loops which should have had a pole running through it. "I don t think this is supposed to be work like this."
"I don't need instructions. I'm figuring it out. It's just a big puzzle. Anybody could have missed that loop." Abby found a few more loops. "Or those. You're supposed to be the engineer here," Owen complained with a frustrated chuckle. He pulled a pole apart so that he could slide it through the loops he missed.
Owen arranged stones in a circular pattern and collected wood while Abby changed into her cutoff shorts and a bikini top. He started a small fire (all those years gave him some talent) and then escaped into the tent to change.
He heard a noise like something plunging into the water followed by Abby's scream. Anxious from worry he rushed out of the tent to find Abby in the river squealing with laughter. "The water is freezing," she said. "Hurry up; you need to get in."
Owen gingerly stepped in the water. The runoff from the mountain snow was cold. "You scared the shite out of me," he said. "I can t believe you screamed like that."
Abby was still squealing with laughter. "I love it. I can feel the cold. There is nothing quite like it."
Owen settled fully into the water and, with a few powerful strokes, he pulled himself across the river. It took years and a number of classes at the university for him to gain confidence with swimming.
After completing the distance across the river, Owen turned around and couldn't see her anymore. "Abby?" he called tentatively. "Where are you?"
She didn't answer. He felt the sensation of a burning pressure in her chest. The bond was helpful, but sometimes he wished it weren't so intense. He swam across to the center area beneath the waterfall while the burning sensation deepened. He dove down and found her on the bottom. When he pulled her above the surface, she inhaled a huge gasp of air. "Are you okay?" Owen asked. He pulled her tight against him. "I thought you were going to drown."
She smiled as she regained her breath and rested her chin against his neck. She let Owen tread water and relaxed while Owen held her afloat. "I knew you wouldn't let me," she said.
"Why'd you do that?" Owen asked.
"I wasn't trying to drown," she said. "I wanted to feel that longing for air. That's how I know I'm alive. Right?"
"Please … please don't do it again," Owen begged. "You're getting older every day. You survive exposure to the sun. You have nothing to prove anymore."
Owen continued to tread water and held her. He could have lasted for hours, but the wind began to pick up when sun settle toward the horizon. "Let s go warm up by the fire," Owen said.
Worried for her, he gingerly towed her over to the bank. The chill descended rapidly with the darkness. They dried off, changed into warmer clothing and started to prepare dinner. He knew Abby was okay when she giggled at the messiness of the 'smores they cooked for desert.
By then, the fire could not hide the luster of the stars. Owen had forgotten how bright they were in Pueblo. Princess Andromeda watched over them.
Abby held out her hands to the fire. "The warmth is incredible," she said."Just like the cold … I love it."
Owen placed her hands on hers pulling them close. She buried her shoulder into Owen's chest and welcomed the compassion of his arm around her shoulder. "I hope I never lose sight of what I've recovered," she said. "That's my wish now. I pray I don't grow too used to the richness of these sensations."
"I'll never let you," Owen promised.
Abby nodded in the direction of a glowing star. Owen did not have to ask which one. "That star is yours," she said, "the brightest star in Perseus. You were always braver than he; you didn't need a gorgon's head to kill my uncle."
"I'm not so brave," Owen said. "I was terrified. And I still am."
"Don't," she insisted. She pushed away so that she could see his eyes. "Even if you were frightened, you did something I could never do. I couldn't find it within myself to fight him. He was gone for a hundred years, and he still held that power over me."
She kissed him. The warmth and tenderness washed over him. Owen hoped that he would never become too accustomed to the softness. "And I need you to keep that spirit," Abby said.
Owen was, once again, embarrassed by a compliment. That night on the steel mill, he just reacted and hoped. There was nothing brave about it. He decided to change the subject. "I thought tomorrow we could stay in Pueblo and go to the zoo. I hear it is really special."
"Owen, that's a brilliant!" Abby said. Her eyes twinkled with happiness. "I always wanted to see the zoo. We never did make the last time."
While the stars traversed the sky, their discussion wandered aimlessly. They talked about the animals they wanted to see and their future in Atlanta. Anything that came to mind. After a few hours, Abby looked at her watch. "Look it s after midnight," she said. "You know what that means?"
"What?" Owen played dumb.
"I'll never be seventeen again. I can't believe how fast the year went. She smiled with a bright shimmer in her eyes that dwarfed the luster of the stars. "I'm eighteen, and I've been eighteen for a very short time."
"Yeah, yeah," Owen said, "eighteen - more or less."
"Don't start that. What did you get me?"
"I thought you didn't get presents," Owen said.
Abby glowered, "Are you going to say that every year?"
Owen chuckled, "Never again." He rose from his seated position and routed through his knapsack. "Here it is." He withdrew a tiny wrapped package from the bottom. He handed it to her with an expectant and anxious smile. "I hope you like it."
Abby tore off the white bow and silver wrapping paper. She gasped when she found a hinged, green velour jewelry box. Inside was a solitaire diamond set in a golden ring. With a tear forming in her eye she asked, "Is this what I think it is?"
Owen's skin tingled in uncertainty and doubt. He nodded, but he couldn't say a word.
"I'd like to hear it," she whispered.
Owen imagined this moment a thousand times. In his dreams, he was cool and suave. Tonight he was shaking and his mouth was dry. He was having a little trouble forming the words. "Will you … umm?" His tongue felt like lead. Why was this so difficult? He would rather face a vicious uncle on the roof of a firebombed factory.
Abby let him off the hook for the rest of the question. She leaped up from her seated position around the fire, threw her arms around his neck and held on tight. She didn't have to say anything, he knew the answer.
After a few minutes she pulled back and held the ring out to stare at it. Owen took it from her hands and placed it on her finger. "I'm sorry it's so small," he said. It was all he could afford from his part time jobs. "Someday maybe I can get you different one … a bigger one." He had to find enough money for a car soon, too. They're driving across the country at the end of the summer.
"It's beautiful," Abby said. "All I ever wanted."
Her joy, her simple contentment helped to relax him."I thought you should settle down after two hundred forty years or so. You don't want to become a spinster or anything."
"Ha, ha … thanks for your concern."
They returned to their seats next to the fire and spoke of their years to come. Owen thought they could be married under the stars, but Abby wanted the warmth of the sun. "I know I said I hated sunshine," she admitted, "but that's not true … not anymore. I don't think I ever hated it."
As often happens at night, the conversation faded with their energy. Abby began to grow anxious and sleepy. She stared back toward the east with her sentences trailing off.
"I'll join you in a minute," Owen said. "I need to clean up. Don't want to attract any unwanted vermin."
"Do you have a needle and thread?" Abby asked. "I have something I need to sew."
Owen fished a travel Owen out of his backpack and handed it to Abby. "Here try this," he said.
Abby entered their tent with a shy glance back toward Owen. She zipped the tent flap closed revealing the word "paradise" scrawled on the door. When did she have time to write that? This was going to be a quick cleaning job. Finally, after he doused the fire doused and packaged the food away Owen unzipped the flap and crossed the threshold into paradise.
Abby was already tucked into her sleeping bag with the lantern light turned off. Owen snuggled next to her in the warm Gore-tex bag. She reached her lips up to kiss him. What it lacked in warmth it made up for the immediacy of the moment. Am I already growing too used to her lips? That was a sad thought.
"It's going to be all right," she said. "We're safe here … protected."
"Of course it's all right. It's going to be better than all right," Owen protested.
Abby reached her fingers around Owen's neck, pulled him close, and kissed him again with an even more desperate urgency.
"What's wrong?" He pulled her hand into his and held it to his lips. Her fingers trembled has he kissed them. He felt a sticky, sweet liquid on his lips and was reminded of the coppery tinged odor. She seemed out of sorts. "What did you do, Abby?"
Owen heard a jarring screech from the eastern sky over the city. His hairs stood up on the back of his neck and his skin became numb. Someone was patrolling. Finding the battery operated camping lantern he switched it on. Ancient symbols were sketched onto each of the four walls of the tent painted in blood. Blood magic … very powerful.
"We can never defeat evil," she said. "That doesn't mean that we shouldn't continue to fight it. We all fight in our own way." A second high-pitched shriek shattered the stillness. Abby continued, "It's all right. We're protected. He can't see us behind the symbols … and he's on the other side of the river."
For how long? Owen wondered. He grabbed onto Abby and held tight. Sometimes, when he felt her anxiety radiate through the bond, he had a difficult time remembering that she was no longer that twelve year old girl. He had an instinctive need to safeguard her from her demons. Lying here, underneath the thin fabric of this tent, on the southwestern bank of the Arkansas River, Owen knew he was alive. He was so frightened for their uncertain future that he couldn't even breathe.
Note: It seems like a few people out there are still reading the story – for which I'm very grateful. If you get this far, please leave a few comments to let me know what you thought. I'm always trying to improve.