"The Pretender" doesn't belong to me, nor do any of the characters. This story does, though. My mind took a couple of little remarks from a couple of different episodes and created this. I don't think that Mr. Parker is completely heartless. He does have a heart, it is just, like the Grinch's, two sizes two small. Anyway, this is my idea on what happened to the little girl that gave Jarod his first kiss.

The Lies that Blind By Donna 1998

"You're a liar, Jarod. Always have been." "I love you, Parker. I'll always be here for you."

"Liar." The words echoed through her mind. Some days, she could push the memories to the back of her mind for hours.

Not today, though.

Today, it had been the first thought on her mind when she woke up. August 21.

She had been dreading it for weeks, knowing that it would come anyway, as it did every year.

WINTER, 1979

Winter break. She was going home. She could hardly wait to see him again. It had been far too long. She knew that her father didn't want her visiting Jarod, but this time she would go anyway. She was an adult now, and was capable of making decisions on her own. She didn't need her father's approval. Besides, what he didn't know wouldn't hurt him.

Jarod had been the closest thing to a friend she had as a child. In those days, she would sneak down to visit him a couple of times a week. He was always so happy to see her, certainly happier than her father was to have her around. For that matter, happier than any one else at The Centre was about her presence there. She loved the way he lit up when he first saw her and she loved the way it made her feel.

When she told him that her father was sending her away to school, his face had fallen. She had assured him that she would be home to visit often and would come to see him every opportunity, but she had failed to do so. Her father's close supervision and her own fear of him had kept her from their secret meeting place. She was a little embarrassed at how long it had been since she had been to visit Jarod. This time, though, she would swallow her fear. Hopefully, she could get Sidney to tell him that she was back and they could resume their friendship. Sometimes they talked, but most often, they just sat and enjoyed being together without any pressure to perform.

Her arrival home was pretty much what she expected. Her father had sent a car to the airport to take her home. When he finally arrived at the house late that night, he had given her a perfunctory kiss and a gruff "Good to have you home, Angel," before retiring to his study. The next morning she was waiting in the kitchen when he came down for breakfast.

"What's got you up so early this morning? I figured you would want to enjoy your vacation, sleep late and all that."

She took a deep breath.

"Actually, Daddy, I was hoping I could go to The Centre with you. There are some people there I'd really like to say hello to. I also thought that maybe there would be some sort of part time job there that I could do while I'm on break. I've been thinking that I might like to work there after I graduate and this would give me an opportunity to test the waters." She waited for his response.

After a moment, he beamed back at her. "That's a wonderful idea, Sweetheart. It's been my hope that you might someday join us there, but I didn't want to push." He gave her a quick hug. "I'm sure we'll find the perfect place for you. After all, you're a Parker. You'll probably be running the place someday."

Her first day there was a whirlwind of activity, running errands for her father and reacquainting herself with the maze of Centre hallways and sublevels. It was late in the day when she finally made her way down to Sidney's office. She wasn't surprised to find him there, bent over some book or file or something. "Hey, Doc, don't you have a home somewhere?"

Startled, he looked up to find her grinning at him. He responded with a bright smile.

"Miss Parker! It's so good to see you."

He rose and met her in the middle of the room for a warm hug.

"Your father didn't mention that you were coming home. It's been much too long since you've come to visit us," he said, in mock reproval.

"I know, and I'm sorry, Sidney. It seems like Daddy has always made such big plans for my breaks that I haven't really been home in a long time. He wanted to send me to Madrid for this one, but I told him that I would rather spend some time with him."

"He couldn't very well turn that down, could he?" Sidney answered.

She looked over to where he had resumed his seat.

"Actually, he did. He reminded me that most people don't have the kind of opportunities he is able to give me and that I was being ungrateful to not appreciate them. I just knew I would be spending Christmas in Spain all by myself. I was shocked when he called and said that he had thought it over and decided that it would be good for me to spend this break here in Delaware. He's even letting me work for him. It will probably be mostly running errands and that kind of stuff, but at least I'll get to see him."

As she talked, she walked around the office, picking up things, looking at them and putting them back. Sidney watched, an amused look on his face. When she noticed, she stopped her pacing and glared at him.


"As happy as I am to see you, I seriously doubt that you came down here just to brighten the office of a tired old man," he chuckled.

She tossed her hair over her shoulder and gave him a perplexed look.

"Why else would I come down here except to see you, Sidney?"

"Oh, I don't know. Perhaps you were wondering about the latest developments in psychological analysis."


"Or you simply got lost on your way somewhere else. These corridors can be a bit confusing."

"Sidney, I spent more time here as a child than I did at home. I could probably still find my way around with my eyes closed."

"Or perhaps," he added with a gentle smile, "you wanted to ask about Jarod."

She smiled back weakly. "Am I really that transparent?"

"Only to someone who has known you your whole life."

She sat down on the edge of the desk.

"So...how is he? Does he ever ask about me?"

Sidney thought a moment.

"He hasn't asked, but I know he has missed you. Do you think it would be alright with your father for you to visit him while you're here?"

She didn't notice that Sidney had skirted the question of how he was.

"I hope so. Maybe you could speak to him about it. Tell him that it would be good for Jarod to see me again, that it would help him to...to work better...to do whatever it is that he does around here..."

She looked at him hopefully.

Sidney didn't want to crush her hopes.

"I can try," he assured her.

"Thank you so much!" She rushed around the desk to hug him. "And could you please tell Jarod that I'm here and that I hope to visit him soon."

"Of course," he agreed.

She smiled one of those brilliant smiles.

"You are wonderful, Syd. I'd better get back to work before Daddy sends out a search party."

She left the room with a spring in her step and a smile on her face.

"I certainly hope Mr. Parker knows what he's doing," Sydney thought to himself.

Naturally, her father had refused her request to visit Jarod.

"It will just distract him from what he needs to be doing. And you from what you need to be doing. You really need to concentrate on your responsibilities here if you want to make a good impression. Being my daughter can help open doors, but you have to prove that you're capable of soaring through them, Angel. I won't be around forever and I want you to be able to look out for yourself when I can't. I want the Parker name to mean 'power' for years to come."

"Well," she reminded herself, "you didn't think it would be easy."

She had made up her mind that she would see him and no one and nothing was going to stop her. She had been sneaking through the hallways at The Centre for years to visit him and didn't see any reason to stop now. She only hoped that Sidney had passed along her message and that Jarod remembered their secret meeting place. "Right! Like Jarod could ever forget anything!"

She smiled to herself as she slipped silently through the darkened corridors. Her heart was racing. She wasn't sure whether she was more anxious about seeing Jarod or about defying her father, but she strongly suspected it was a little of both. She looked around carefully as she climbed into the air vent that led to their secret spot. Angelo had showed it to them years ago, an area in the ductwork that widened out into the size of a small room. A careful search had revealed no cameras or microphones, so they had decided to use it as a meeting place. She had sneaked pillows and blankets down there and the friends had created their own secret little nest. When she arrived, she was surprised to see that everything was just as they had left it. "So, is everything like you remember it?" a deep voice interrupted her thoughts.

She turned quickly.

It was him.

Her breath caught in her throat. He was taller and more muscular and much more handsome, but it was definitely him.

She felt a smile breaking across her face.

"Everything but you."

In an instant, she was in his arms being crushed in his embrace. She hugged back with equal vigor. Stepping back, he looked at her...at the beautiful young woman that she had become. "You've changed quite a bit yourself, Parker. It's been too long."

Her face fell. "I know, Jarod. I'm sorry."

He reached out and lifted her chin so he could meet her eyes again. "Hey, it's okay. You're here now. I've missed you."

Her smile returned.

"I've missed you, too, Jarod.

As the two began to catch up, they had no idea that the ever-present electronic eyes and ears of The Centre had invaded their once safe haven.

Two men stood watching.

"Do you really think this will work?"

"Of course it will work. They're teenagers. All we have to do is to allow nature to take its course."

The two met again the next night. Snuggling close together to whisper back and forth, both realized the major changes that had taken place in their bodies. When Parker caught Jarod staring at her breasts, she asked, with only a slight tremor in her voice, "Would you like to touch them?"

He quickly looked up, his eyes wide.

She faced him, determined to do this no matter how embarrassed she was. "Because I'd really like for you to."

He reached out hesitantly, stopping inches from her and met her eyes again.

"Are you sure?"

In answer, she pulled her shirt over her head. She smiled when she saw his eyes widen at the sight of her bra. She took his hand and placed it lightly on the pale pink lace. He moved his other hand to her other breast, marveling at how soft and warm they felt. He looked back at her face and smiled. She chewed her lip. "I know they're not very big..."

"They're beautiful, just like you," he reassured her.

Her face lit up and she leaned forward and kissed him tentatively on the lips. His response was equally hesitant. They separated, each wondering about the feelings coursing through them at that moment. As if reaching a decision, she reached back and unclasped her bra, allowing it to fall between them. While he stared, she reached over and pulled at his t-shirt. Almost mechanically he removed it, his eyes never leaving her. She ran her hands over his bare chest as he gently began caressing her breasts again.

She smiled at him and lay down on a blanket, holding her hand out to him in invitation. "Please, Jarod..."

"Are you sure?"

She nodded. "I want to make love with you, Jarod."

"I've never..."

"Me either. A couple of boys at school have tried to get me in bed, but I've always wanted you to be the first."

He gently caressed her face. "I know that it can be...painful...for a woman, the first time..."

She was touched by his thoughtfulness and reached up to take his hand.

"I know. Some of my friends have told me. That's why I want it to be you. I know that you'll be gentle, that you would never intentionally hurt me."

He leaned down to look her in the eye.

"I love you, Parker, and I would rather die than hurt you. You believe that, don't you?"

She nodded, meeting his gaze.

"I know that. And I love you, always and only."

With that reassurance, his lips met hers and the two gave in to the passion within. The watchers were pleased.

Over the next two weeks, Jarod and Parker met whenever both could steal away from their various duties. They talked and laughed and made love, reveling in the time they had.

All too soon, though, it had to come to an end. "I have to go back to school tomorrow," she told him, hating to break the warm mood.

"I know."

She raised her head to look at him.

"Maybe I could just tell Daddy that I don't want to go, that I want to stay here and work at the Centre."

He brushed the hair back from her face.

"I'm afraid that might make his suspicious. Besides, I don't plan to stay here very much longer."

A surprised look crossed her face. "They're going to let you leave?"

"They're not 'letting' me do anything, but I'm going to do it anyway," he told her with a wry grin.

"You're going to escape?" she asked in a soft whisper. "How?"

"I don't have all the details worked out yet, but it won't be long."

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

"No, I think it's better that you don't get involved."

"I love you, Jarod, that makes me involved," she reminded him, irritation plain in her voice.

He hastened to reassure her. "I know, Parker. I love you, too. It's just that I really don't know how I'm going to do it, so I don't know how you could help."

Angrily, she got up and started dressing. Jarod watched her in confusion.

"What's wrong?" he finally ventured to ask.

She threw him a venomous look. "You're leaving."


Comprehension suddenly dawned.

"I'm leaving the Centre, not you."

He took her shoulders, forcing her to face him. "When I leave here, the first thing I'm going to do is to find you."

She looked into his eyes, hardly daring to hope.

"I want you with me...if you want to be with me. When I leave, I have no doubt the Centre will do whatever they can to find me and bring me back. We'll be on the run constantly, but if you're willing to live like that, I'll do everything in my power to protect you, Parker."

He was so sincere, so intense, she knew he was telling her the truth. She threw her arms around him and answered, "As long as we're together, we can manage anything. Just don't ever leave me."

"I love you, Parker. I'll always be here for you."

In another room two men stood watching the touching scene.

"Do you think the plan was successful?"

"We'll know soon enough. Is everything ready?"

"As you directed, sir. Your daughter returns to school tomorrow morning and Sidney will be on another early morning flight to a conference in Brazil. He'll be gone for a whole week. The other doctors will start to work on Jarod immediately."

Mr. Parker looked at him intently.

"And they are absolutely certain that they can wipe Jarod's memory of this whole affair with my daughter?"

"Yes, sir. Through a combination of drugs and hypnosis, those memories, along with his escape plans, will cease to exist."

"And they are certain that there will be no effect on Jarod's abilities?"

"None whatsoever."

The speaker paused to look at the two teens on the video screen.

"What about your daughter? Won't she be hurt by this?"

"I'll take care of my daughter. I always take care of my family."

SPRING, 1980

When spring break arrived in March, she insisted on spending it in Delaware again. Her father gave no argument, since this fit very well into his plan. He noticed that she looked pale and thin, as though she had been ill. He hoped that this was a good sign. Again, she offered to work for him at the Centre and again, he seemed pleased to accept. At the first opportunity, she headed for Sidney's office to ask him about Jarod. When Jarod had not shown up to collect her, she feared that he had taken ill or something terrible had happened to him. She managed to ask her father about him during a phone conversation and he had assured her that Jarod was fine; in fact, he seemed happier than ever and had just agreed to stay on at the Centre.

"He's just trying to mislead them," she tried to convince herself. She didn't quite believe herself.

It didn't help when one of her friends got dumped by her boyfriend. 'He got what he wanted from me and then left. Men are only interested in one thing.'

"Jarod's not like that. He really loves me."

When she arrived at Sidney's office, she was surprised to find Jarod himself there. He was pacing the room, deep in thought. Sidney had just given him a particularly complex sim to run and he was involved in sorting through the facts. Mr. Parker was counting on Jarod's habit of completely closing off reality when involved in the most confusing of simulations.

Her soft greeting broke his concentration at a very important juncture. Without realizing what he was doing, he snapped at her.

"What do you want?"

She was taken aback. "I'm sorry. I'm home on break and just wanted to see how you were doing."

"I'm doing fine. I'm also very busy at the moment and really don't have time to talk right now, so if you'll excuse me?"

She was devastated. "Of course...I'm sorry..."

She turned and fled from his presence, fighting back tears. Finally, she found a deserted stairwell where she sat down and cried her heart out. When she was finished, she went to the nearest bathroom to repair the damage and then headed for her father's office. She took a deep breath, held her head high, and went in to break the news to him.

"I'm not going back to school, Daddy. I'm pregnant."

She was so wrapped up in her own feelings that she didn't notice the glimmer of satisfaction in his eyes. He quickly covered it and stepped into the role of concerned parent. "Are you sure?"

She nodded miserably. "What about the father?"

She couldn't tell her father the whole truth. She was in enough trouble without admitting that she had defied him to visit Jarod.

"Just a guy I met. We're not together anymore. In fact, he doesn't want anything to do with me anymore."

Even though she didn't want her father to see how hurt she was, she couldn't stop the tear that rolled down her face. "I'm sorry, Angel. I could lecture you about being careful, but I suppose it's a little late for that. I'm sorry this boy hurt you, but that happens when you let people get too close."

She nodded, not trusting herself to speak.

"Now, the question is what are we going to do about it? Do you want to get rid of it?"

The question was like a slap in the face. In spite of the way he had treated her, she still loved Jarod and the thought of killing his child had never entered her mind. "No, Daddy, I couldn't do that. I don't know what I'm going to do, but not that."

He breathed a sigh of relief. He wasn't sure what he would do if she had wanted an abortion. It would mess up everything. "Why don't we start by getting one of the doctors to take a look at you, make sure everything's alright. If it is, we can discuss your options." He walked over to her and held out his hand to help her up. "Whatever you decide, I'll support you."

She had never loved her father more than she did at that moment.

The doctor's news wasn't good.

Yes, she was about three months pregnant, but there were complications. She was underweight, probably due to the terrible nausea she had been experiencing and her blood pressure was a little too high. She was in danger of a miscarriage. To decrease the chances of that happening, he wanted to put her to bed for the remainder of the pregnancy. Mr. Parker watched his daughter's face, paying little attention to the doctor. After all, he had written the script. She looked frightened and a little overwhelmed by it all. She turned to him. "What do you think, Daddy?"

He looked back at her. "We would have to hire a nurse to take care of you. I spend so much time here, and I really couldn't leave you at home alone."

On cue, the doctor piped up. "Miss Parker could always stay here. We have the facilities to take proper care of her and there would be round the clock medical assistance available."

Mr. Parker seemed to consider the suggestion. He looked to see how she was reacting.

"It would also allow me to come down and visit you during the day, spend some time with my favorite girl. What do you think, Angel?" His last remark had the desired effect. She smiled at him. "Well, if you think it would be best..."

"Then that's settled." He got up. "We'll go back to the house and get whatever you might need while the doctor here gets your room ready."

As she headed towards the elevator, her father stopped to speak to the doctor.

"Everything is ready?"

"Yes, Mr. Parker. We have a room set up for her on SL-27 where we can monitor every moment of the pregnancy. This child will start off with the very best."

"Considering what it will do for us, that's the least we can do."

As the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, Miss Parker found herself growing more and more restless. She felt fine and was sick and tired of being confined to her bed, but the doctors told her that the baby was still in danger. Her diet was strictly monitored, as were her daily exercise periods at the gym down the hall.

She was bored to tears.

She read more than she had read in years and worked on the computer some, but every day seemed just a little bit longer than the day before. The only consolation was that she did get to see more of her father. He often came down to share meals with her or bring her some new reading material. He spoke of how proud he would be to see her make her mark at the Centre.

Actually, he wasn't the only consolation. She also had her baby girl. A sonogram had revealed the baby's sex and she had immediately decided to name it after her mother. When she got too bored for other things, she would sit a dream about her life with Catherine. She imagined all the things they would do together and all the places they would go. Her baby's well being was the one thing that got her through the long days of waiting.

Her exam that morning had gone well. The doctor had told her that she and the baby were doing fine, and that Catherine should be making her debut in a few more weeks. It was almost lunchtime and Daddy would be arriving any moment now to eat with her. She got out of bed and put on her robe, planning to meet him at the elevator. When she reached the door to her room, she could hear voices outside. It was her father and the doctor, and they were talking about her.

She put her ear to the door to listen. "Everything is right on schedule, Mr. Parker. The baby is well developed and the amniocentesis yielded enough genetic material to confirm that she does have the pretender blood type, just like Jarod and your daughter."

"Perfect," Mr. Parker responded. "A pretender that we can shape from birth."

"What about your daughter, sir? Do you think she's any more likely to surrender her child than her mother was?"

"You leave my daughter to me. She's much too young to raise a child anyway. It won't be easy on her, but it's for the best. It will make her stronger in the long run."

She couldn't believe what she was hearing and jerked the door open to confront him.

"You knew all along! You knew about me and Jarod!"

"Now, sweetheart, calm down."

"Calm down?! You've been lying to me!"

"You're the one that lied. You neglected to mention that you had been sneaking around with Jarod and that he was the father of your baby."

"But that's alright, because you already knew, didn't you? In fact, you probably arranged the whole thing!"

Mr. Parker at least had the grace to look a little uncomfortable.

"Think of the contribution you'll be making to the Centre, Angel. The Centre doesn't forget those that are loyal to it. Jarod knows that."

She felt like she had been slugged in the stomach. "Jarod? You mean...Jarod was a part of this? He intentionally got me pregnant?"

Her father reached out to her.

She slapped him away angrily. "You bastard! How could you do this to me? I hate you!" She started pummeling him with her fists. One of the orderlies that the doctor had summoned reached out to restrain her.

"Be careful," the doctor warned him, "We don't want to injure the baby."

She pulled away and stood staring at them all.

"That's right. You wouldn't want to hurt your new little moneymaker. That's all this is to you, isn't it?" she asked her father.

"Of course not..."

"Of course it is! Well, you're not going to get her! I would rather die than let you have her!"

She turned and ran, not really knowing where she was going, just knowing that she had to get away from those monsters. She ran into one of the labs. No one was there, but experiments bubbled and boiled on various tables throughout the room. The orderlies and her father were right behind her. She tried to dodge around them, but in her condition, she was no match for the bigger, stronger men.

As the carried her gently from the room, no one noticed the burner that had been knocked off the table during her flight. No one noticed the small pile of papers that started to smolder and burn.

She was taken back to her room and strapped to her bed. "We have to," the doctor assured her father when he questioned the straps. "It is possible that she would try to deliberately harm the baby to keep it from us."

He nodded, pain evident on his face. "But what are we going to do now? We can't keep her like this for the next month."

"No," the doctor agreed. "The stress and anger would certainly have an adverse effect. And we can't sedate her either. Any drugs used would also affect the child. I think the best option is to induce labor now. The baby is developed enough to survive outside of the womb and the risks would be minimal."

"Alright. Then that's what we'll do."

She continued to struggle. "How can you do this to me, Daddy? I'll never forgive you!"

He smiled sadly. "You won't even remember this, Angel."

A gurney was brought in and she was moved to another room where she was strapped to a birthing table and administered labor-inducing drugs. As her labor progressed, she screamed and cursed at her father, tears coursing down her face as she struggled to stop the contractions with will power alone. "Mr. Parker, you really don't have to stay," the doctor told him. "I know. But I think I should be here with her."

"She's in good hands and, as you said, she won't even remember being here, much less that you were here with her."

"She won't remember, but I will. In spite of what you may think, I really don't like doing this to her. This way, I can at least tell myself that I was here for her."

"As you wish, sir."

She was fully dilated and about to give birth when there was a loud explosion and the alarms began shrieking. The door burst open and an orderly rushed in.

"There's a fire! We have to evacuate this level immediately!"

Mr. Parker grabbed him. "How did this happen? Where is it? Won't the sprinklers and the fire doors contain it?"

"No, sir, it apparently started in Dr. Raines' lab. Somehow, it spread through the ventilation shafts without triggering the alarms. We don't really know the extent of it, but we know it's a big one."

"Well, you'd better stop it," the doctor told him. "Miss Parker cannot be moved at this point without extreme risk of spinal damage to the baby."

"If we stay here, we risk all being killed by fire!" Mr. Parker reminded him. A nurse interrupted. "We could perform an emergency C- section and at least get the baby to a safe location."

They could hear additional explosions outside the room, accompanied by the screams of those caught in them.

"What about my daughter?" Mr. Parker asked. The doctor looked up at him. "There probably would not be enough time close and move her. She would most likely bleed to death."

His eyes met her angry ones. "Fine! Let me die! Bleed to death or die in the fire, it really doesn't matter! You've already torn my heart out!" she spat at him.

He came to a decision. "No, I won't sacrifice her. Be as careful as possible, but get her out of here now," he told the orderlies standing nearby.

"You would risk this baby, this pretender, for your daughter?" the doctor asked.

"NOW!" he roared.

"The Tower will be very angry if this child is damaged by your sudden paternal leanings," the doctor informed him.

"I will answer to The Tower. Right now you have to answer to me, and if you don't get her out of here, I swear you will wish you were only answering to The Tower!"

The doctor stared at him a moment longer then nodded to the orderlies. "You heard Mr. Parker. Let's get her moved upstairs, quickly and with as little jolting as possible."

Sometime later, Mr. Parker entered the room where his daughter lay sleeping.

"How is she doing?" he asked the doctor.

"We have her stabilized now and sedated her. What happened on SL-27?"

"The whole level was destroyed. I doubt we can salvage any of the equipment or materials down there. Fifteen people were killed and numerous others injured. Dr. Raines is one of those in bad shape."

The doctor nodded. "We were lucky that anyone escaped. What do you want to do now? We can't keep her sedated forever."

Her father walked over and looked down at her, brushing a lock of hair back from her face.

"The doctors will be here shortly to take care of her. We'll have to wipe her memory of the last few months."

"She won't even remember the pregnancy?"

"No, we won't wipe that out. I want her to remember the pain that Jarod caused her, how he wasn't there for her when she needed him. We'll just wipe the time that she's been here in the Centre medical facility."

"That's a big block of time. What do you intend to replace it with?"

"Europe. I've been promising her for years that we would spend a summer in Europe together. This seems like a good time to have done it. The travel department is working now to plan out what we did. They'll take care of the passports, ticket stubs, souvenirs, and momentos that we collected. She'll have wonderful memories of a vacation with her father."

She slowly struggled to open her eyes. She felt tired, confused. She was in bed, but it wasn't her bed. She could feel someone holding her hand. Her eyelids finally lifted.


He smiled at her. "Welcome back, Angel. You had us pretty worried for a while there."

She didn't understand. "What happened? Where am I?"

He looked concerned. "What's the last thing you remember?"

She thought a moment. "Rome. We had tickets to the opera, but you said that maybe we should skip it, that I looked tired."

She looked around. "But this isn't our hotel. This is the medical facility at The Centre, isn't it?"

"Yes, sweetheart. You became very ill, developed a very high fever quite suddenly. I chartered a jet to bring us back here as quickly as possible."

She frowned suddenly, her hand moving to her abdomen. She looked down, then up at her father, a panicked expression on her face.

"My baby! What happened to my baby?"

Mr. Parker took her hand again. "I'm sorry, Princess. The fever caused you to go into premature labor. The infection that had made you so ill had already passed on to her. The doctors did the best they could, but she was just too small and weak to fight it off. I'm so sorry. I never should have taken you to Europe. I thought the trip would take your mind off the pain this boy caused you, but maybe if you had been here, if we could have gotten you medical treatment faster, maybe Catherine would still be here with us."

Her eyes filled with tears. "Where is she now?"

"You've been in a coma for several days. I went ahead and buried her next to your mother. That way, her grandmother can take care of her."

He took her in his arms as she began to sob. "I'm here for you, Angel."

AUGUST 21, 1998

A knock on the door brought her back to the present. She smiled slightly as the door opened and her father poked his head in.

"It's about dinner time, Angel. I was planning on trying out that new seafood place in town. Would you care to join me?"

It was almost funny. Of all the birthdays, special occasions, and anniversary dates her father seemed to forget, he never forgot this one. Neither one of them ever mentioned the reason, but he had never failed to take her out for dinner on this date. "Sure. Nothing going on here but more loose ends. Unfortunately, they'll still be here in the morning." She grabbed her purse, turned out the lights, and joined him. The meal was excellent and the conversation light. They discussed a play they had both seen and made tentative plans to visit an upcoming art show. No mention was made of The Centre or of the little girl who would have been 18 years old today. In the parking lot, he walked her to her car and gave her a hug and a peck on the cheek before sending her on her way.

"Get a good night's rest. Tomorrow will be better."

Home again, she walked into her expensively decorated bedroom, slipped on her silk pajamas, sat down on an elegant stool in front of a designer vanity, picked up the silver brush and began brushing her thick chestnut hair. Miles away in a small room with simple wooden furniture, another young woman sat brushing her hair. Her pajamas were plain white cotton and her brush was a simple plastic one, but the thick chestnut hair was almost identical, as were the pale blue green eyes looking in the mirror. She had no idea that today was a special day for her. She had spent it like she spent every other day she could remember, running simulations for The Centre. She wondered, as she often did, what was outside The Centre walls, and if there was someone out there looking for her. She put down her brush and climbed into bed.

Mr. Parker had returned to his office.

He hadn't turned on the lights, the video monitor gave off plenty of light. He sat in his chair, drink in hand, watching as the girl pulled up the sheet and turned out her bedside lamp. He reached out and touched the screen in front of him. "Happy birthday, Catherine. Happy birthday."

The end?