“Trudy. You’re down early.” Lydia took one look at her daughter’s haggard appearance and knew it had not been a restful night. “You didn’t have any more nightmares, did you?”
Trudy flopped down on a chair and rubbed her eyes with her fists. “Nightmare? Oh, right, nightmare.”
She seemed confused. “Right. No…no problem.” As she yawned mightily, she stretched her arms toward the ceiling. Then she lowered them and shook her shoulders to get her circulation going.
Seems okay, Lydia sighed to herself. I hope we can return to normal around here now.
She got up to refresh her coffee. “Want some while I’m up?” she asked her daughter.
“Sure, that would be great. Perhaps some French toast, a bit of bacon, maybe some…”
“Right. I’ll get right on that,” Lydia replied drily. They exchanged warm smiles.
“Did I hear bacon mentioned?” Steve came through the door. Smiling, he went to his daughter and bent down to kiss the top of her head. Trudy smiled up at him.
Then, to Steve’s surprise, her face suddenly transformed into a look of sheer terror.
Steve reared back, alarmed. Then he put a hand on her shoulder. “What’s wrong, love?”
Trudy flinched under his touch and turned away with a whimper. Lydia, perplexed, walked back to the table. She carefully put down the coffee she was carrying, and sat down to look into her daughter’s eyes.
“Trudy, what’s the problem?”
Trudy couldn’t meet her parents’ gaze. She buried her face in her hands.
After a moment, she spoke, her voice muffled. “I don’t know. Must be the nightmare.” She put her hands down, but kept her gaze on the table. “Sorry, Daddy.”
Lydia and Steve exchanged worried glances.
Trudy had a sip of her coffee, then quickly stood up. “Gotta go get dressed.” She brushed a kiss on her dad’s cheek and ran out the door.
Lydia could see Steve’s jaw working. She stood up and went to him. Laying a gentle hand on his arm, she looked imploringly into his eyes. “Please, dear, don’t be upset. She’s been through a lot since yesterday.”
Steve turned away, frustrated, and looked as if he was going to bring his fist down on the table. At the last moment he stopped, then slapped his open hand down instead. “Well, why am I the target? What did I do?”
His voice rose as he vented the anger that had been building up inside him for the last several days. The lack of privacy, the added responsibility of taking care of a small boy, the child’s astonishing acts in the past twenty-four hours, and other reasons he couldn’t quite work out, all combined to stoke the fire of his temper. Once it started, it came out in an unstoppable torrent. A part of him that was still rational was deeply grateful for his patient, caring wife, who stood quietly by and let him rant.
He paced the floor. “I mean, suddenly I’m some sort of pariah to her, and I didn’t DO anything to her. What attacked her had been female. I don’t get the connection. I tell ya, Lydia, this whole thing stinks.
“This ‘mission’ thing, our house always filled with some sort of supernatural visitor or other, and besides that I get no rest at work either. Delilah’s always coming up with some weird scheme or other, and when I object, she goes over my head and gets her way. Why am I even THERE?”
He finally wound down, although there was still a lot he wanted to get off his chest. How he seemed to be powerless, not only against the threats to his family, but also in the way Delilah made him feel. Especially the latter; no way was he going to tell his wonderful, perfect wife how he seemed to be more and more attracted to his client, definitely against his will.
Lydia said nothing, just walked over and put her arms around him. Steve inhaled her familiar scent of vanilla, and was finally able to relax.
As long as I have Delilah—wait, WHAT? NO! As long as I have Lydia, everything will work out.
He pulled away, gently, reluctantly, and kissed Lydia for a long moment. Then he smiled and turned toward the door into the living room. “I’d better go before I get us in trouble.”
Lydia smiled at his remark.
Steve stopped with his hand on the door. “Where’s Pat? He’s usually up at this time.” He turned and looked quizzically at Lydia.
“I believe he’s with that old fisherman in the park. Or just running.”
“Well, he’d better start thinking of a job.” Steve’s mood was darkening again. “He’s had enough ‘free time’. If he’s going to live here, he’d better start contributing.” Then, without waiting for a reply, he pushed through the door.
On his way to the front door, he glanced up the stairs and saw Trudy coming down. Toby was at her side, an ever-present companion. He smiled tentatively at his daughter. “See you later?”
“Sure, Daddy. Have a good day.” She smiled, but the effort was more like a grimace. Her eyes were wide, her nostrils flared, and she was gripping the bannister so hard that he could see her white knuckles from this distance.
“Bye Unca Steve.” The boy did not run to him as he usually did. He stood beside Trudy, holding her hand, and gazed at Steve with solemn, unsmiling eyes.
Steve’s temper rose. Fine, he fumed to himself, I’m leaving. Gads, when is that kid going home? He could hardly believe the ferocity of his own thoughts.
Trudy watched him. As he slammed out the front door and stomped to his truck, she let out a choking sob. Sitting down on the step, she let her defenses go and cried her heart out. Toby stroked her head comfortingly as great, wracking wails tore from her. She rocked back and forth in short, spastic movements that brought her no relief.
She was gradually aware that Toby’s presence had been joined by another. Lifting her head and swallowing her grief, she was grateful to see Gabriel sitting beside her. Without thinking, she buried her face in his shoulder and cried even harder.
Gabriel simply held her, while Toby patted her arm. The boy and the angel looked across the top of Trudy’s head at each other, knowledge of ages past and futures vaguely known reflected in both of their faces.
Trudy was finally out of tears for the time being. She sat up and wiped her eyes with her hands. It suddenly dawned on her how close and personal she had been with the archangel.
“Oh, Gabriel, I’m so sorry. I didn’t even think when I…”
“Don’t worry about it. We’re friends, right?” Gabriel produced a tissue, which Trudy accepted gratefully. “Now, is there something we need to talk about?”
“It’s Dad. I don’t know, ever since last night…”
She started in panic and moved to get up. “Mom! I have to tell her.”
“No, not yet. Tell me first.”
She looked at the messenger from God. “You already know, don’t you?”
“Not clearly, no. But you have noticed something. What was it?”
Trudy gulped and put a shaky hand to her mouth. Tears ran down her face. She closed her eyes for a moment, willing herself to stay in control.
“I noticed…first…last night, when he came home. There’s some sort of blackish-grey, I don’t know, mist? surrounding him. It was like that—that creature—that attacked me. But she was surrounded by red, with a blackness in her. I don’t know how I could see it, but I did. And now Daddy has it. The grey mist, with just a little black in him. But it’s growing!”
Her eyes flew open with the realization. “Gabriel!” She clutched his arm. “He’s going black in his center. Something is causing him to go dark. And that grey…it’s like a SHROUD!” The control gave way, and she collapsed on him again.
Lydia, who had been in the backyard trying to sort out her own thoughts, came in at that moment. She had heard the sound of their voices, muffled through the door. When Trudy started crying, she dashed into the living room and to the foot of the stairs.
“Gabriel? What happened?”
He smiled gently down at her. “She’s still suffering from the trauma of yesterday.”
“Maybe I should…” Lydia began as she started up the stairs.
Toby came down towards her, his little arms out. “Aunty, I hungwy.” His voice took on the whiny tinge of a little boy who was being unfairly kept away from his food.
“I have Trudy,” Gabriel assured her. “Take care of Toby.”
Lydia let the little boy wrap his arms around her neck, and carried him into the kitchen. Trudy watched them go, and then looked frantically at Gabriel. “I have to tell her. She has to know.”
Gabriel brushed her wet, tear-soaked hair away from her face.
“And what could she do with the information?” He cupped Trudy’s chin in his hand. His look was sad. “Thus your mission has been partially revealed to you. I know about your visitor last night; we were happy to welcome her home. Your help will be essential in freeing others who will be afflicted like her.”
“‘Will be’? Can’t it be stopped?”
“We want to eradicate the monster who is at the core of this. No one she afflicts will be lost, unless they want to be. There is nothing we can do about them.”
Trudy looked worried. Gabriel brought his eyes level with hers. “Don’t worry. I will stay close and help you carry it off. Trust me. I won’t let you fail.”
He was so close, and Trudy was so scared. She did it before she could help herself; she kissed him quickly, full on the mouth.
They both drew back, shocked.
Embarrassed, Trudy leapt to her feet and ran up the stairs, leaving Gabriel staring after her as she disappeared down the hall.
Pat found himself in the hardware store. He didn’t remember going in, but here he was. It was uncomfortable, standing there in his running shorts and an old sweatshirt, gaping mindlessly at the shelves. Not knowing any good reason for being there, he turned and headed for the exit.
And then he saw her.
She was standing on tiptoe, reaching up for a box just out of her reach.
“Let me get that for you,” he said, stepping over to her.
“Oh, would you please? I’d appreciate it. There never seems to be a ladder around when I need one, and I have a rather cranky customer.” She turned to smile at him, her eyes full of gratitude.
Pat could only stare numbly. She was the most beautiful young woman he’d ever seen in all of his life. Dark, lustrous hair, smooth olive complexion, and big brown eyes full of kindness and warmth.
She laughed, a sweet, tinkling laugh that made Pat think of a clear, clean mountain brook. The light scent of roses…
“Excuse me?” She waved her hand in front of his face. He blinked, coming back to himself.
“Um?” Oh, now don’t I sound intelligent…
“The box?” She pointed up to the shelf.
“Oh. Right. Cranky customer. Sorry.” He gave her an embarrassed smile and easily lifted the box down.
“Thanks.” She smiled gratefully and hurried off.
Pat sighed as he watched her disappear around the end of the aisle. Then, after looking around to maybe get a clue as to why he came in, he shrugged his shoulders and started for the exit again.
As he reached the doors, he met her again as she was coming in from outside.
“Hi again,” he said, surprised and grateful at the same time. “Did your customer get what he wanted?”
She sighed. “I certainly hope so. He had a ton of things to take out to his truck, and needed help getting it loaded.”
“And you did it? I mean, why didn’t one of the warehouse guys do it?”
She raised an eyebrow. “Think I can’t handle it?”
“No, no I didn’t say that. Oh boy, sorry, I…”
She laughed again, and he wanted to swim in that mountain brook, drink from it, live by it the rest of his life.
“I’m just teasing you,” she said. “The truth is, he’s on crutches and was getting very tired. I didn’t want him to have to wait around for someone else to show up and help, and I’d just gotten him into a better mood. Besides, it was mostly plants. Nothing like concrete or bags of rocks.”
“Ah. Well, er, that…was…nice of you.”
Lame! Try again!
“Uh,” he glanced at her nametag. “Miriam? Maybe you could help me find something?”
“What might that be?” Her eyes sparkled with merriment. He knew he had to find some reason, and fast, for asking for her assistance.
Out of the blue, he said, “Ax handles.”
“Really?” She looked surprised.
“Um, yeah. See, I have this friend who lives in, I mean near, the park, and he was saying the other day that he could use some good…ax…um, handles…” His voice trailed off as he considered how ludicrous his excuse was. For whatever reason, he felt ashamed to have made up the story.
But as Miriam directed him to the right area, he was surprised at the conviction growing within him that he was, indeed, supposed to buy these items. And that he had to take them to Nick.
He was faintly aware that she was saying something.
I am really scoring points today…
“What type of handle? There’s wood, there’s fiberglass, there’s a polymer…”
“Um, wood. I guess. Uh, yeah.”
“There are different lengths for different ax heads. Do you know what kind your friend has?”
“Oh. Crud. No.” Suddenly it all seemed so pointless, taking up her time and trying to convince himself that he had a good reason, other than the fact that he was crazy about her.
“Look, I’m going to go now. This has been a total fiasco. I don’t know why I said ax handles, I don’t really know if my friend needs one, and—thanks for the help, Miriam, but I’d better go. My dad wants me to look for a job, and I’m wasting my time and yours.” He smiled apologetically, touched her sleeve, and walked away.
“Wait!” Miriam called out as she caught up with him. “Maybe we could, you know, get off on a better footing. Maybe over coffee?” She looked hopefully at him.
“Hey, yeah, okay.” Pat’s heart had just sailed over the moon. “When?”
“I get off in about an hour. Want to meet up at the new coffee shop across from the library?”
“Sounds great, Miriam. See you then.” He grinned and turned towards the door.
She was beside him again, her rose-scented perfume teasing his nostrils. “I didn’t get your name…?”
“Oh, I’m such an idiot. So sorry.” He held out his hand. “Pat Bronson.”
She took his hand in hers, and the universe stopped for him. But just for a moment; he came back to himself as she said, “See you in a bit.”
“Miriam!” called one of the employees. “We need another cashier. The lines are getting long.”
“Oh, okay. Coming!” She turned to Pat. “Gotta go.”
Pat walked home in a daze. It wasn’t until he was in his room that he realized that he hadn’t had his wallet at the store anyway. So why had he gone in?
The new coffee house was sparsely populated; the afternoon crowd had thinned out, leaving just a few customers scattered around the café. Pat and Miriam had secured a quiet corner, which was furnished with comfortable chairs and a small table.
After their time together, Pat could not remember much of what they had talked about. He only knew that he had to spend more time with her. They decided to go out to dinner on the weekend, exchanged phone numbers, and went their separate ways.
Pat meandered slowly up his walkway, his mind whirling with the day’s events. After turning the key in the door, he sort of danced into the house.
His dad met him in the foyer. He seemed agitated, and Pat’s dreaminess started to unravel at the edges.
“Where’ve you been, Pat?” Steve asked.
“Just out with a girl I met today. Oh, Dad, I have to tell you about her…”
“Later,” his dad interrupted. He blocked Pat’s path, his arms crossed over his chest. The frown on his face told his son that the day had been less than ideal. “Have you looked for a job yet?”
Poof! went the dream, its tendrils vacating Pat’s mind in a flash. He rolled his eyes. “Yes, I put in a couple of applications this morning.”
“Well, at least that’s something.” Steve turned and picked up some papers lying on the table beside his chair. “Here, fill these out.”
“What’s this?” Pat took the papers from his dad and looked at the top page. “‘A Better World Medical Research’? Where’s that?” He looked quizzically at his dad.
“It’s the company Delilah is putting together. That’s what’s going in on top of the hill.”
Pat could feel his stomach drop, along with his jaw. “Dad, I told you what happened up there. I couldn’t possibly spend any time in those buildings.”
“I’ve been up there and nothing’s happened. You’ll be fine. Delilah’s holding a warehouse position open for you, and I think it’s damn generous for her to do so. Fill out the application and I’ll take it to her tomorrow evening.”
“She likes to stay away during the work hours. Doesn’t like all the dirt flying around, she says.”
“Neat freak, huh?” Pat grinned at his dad, but the smile disappeared when Steve didn’t return it. “Dad, it’s a joke.”
“Right. Your sister is filling one of these out too.” Without another word, Steve sat back down in his chair and picked up the newspaper.
Pat shook his head slowly, perplexed. He gave his dad a long look and walked toward the stairs.
What’s gotten into him? I know he’s tired, but he’s never been like this before. That Delilah person must really be driving him hard. Or Howard, but I doubt it.
Just before he started up the stairs, he looked over his shoulder at his dad. He was disturbed to see a look of confused pain on Steve’s face as he gingerly rubbed a spot on his arm. He’d rolled up the sleeve, and even from this distance Pat could see the red welts along his arm.
“Dad? You okay?”
Steve’s head jerked up, and he hastily rolled his sleeve back down. Then the hard look he’d had on his face earlier returned. “Why wouldn’t I be?” he growled.
“I just wondered…oh, never mind.” Pat turned and went up the steps, wondering at what he had just seen.
He knocked on Trudy’s door, and got another surprise when she opened it. Tears were running down her face, and she clutched part of the application form in one fist while wiping her eyes with a tissue in the other.
“Trudy?” He didn’t get in another word; she flung herself into his arms, sobbing.
“Okay, sissie, okay, let’s go back in here,” Pat crooned to his sister, as if she was a scared child. He quietly shut the door and sat her down at her desk. The rest of the application was scattered across its surface.
“What is it, Trude? The application? Dad? Both?”
“I don’t care about the application, not as much as I do about Dad.” Trudy sniffed and hiccupped. “Something’s happened to him.”
Pat rubbed her back. “I think he’s just over-tired. He’s been putting in some long hours.”
“That’s not it. But…but…I don’t know if I can tell you. Gabriel said not to tell Mom…”
“But you can tell Pat.” Gabriel suddenly appeared before them.
Trudy gasped and blushed. To Pat’s amazement, she turned away from the angel. Gabriel looked a bit uncomfortable himself.
“In fact, you must confide everything about your missions to each other. Then you must recruit others to help you, others you know you can trust. As for me,” here he paused, and Trudy looked up at him, hope and embarrassed avoidance competing on her face, “I must keep some distance from you. Conditions here will soon deteriorate if I stay.”
He glanced at Trudy, who had despair written all over her face.
“Your father,” he explained gently. “He resents my presence. It’s causing problems in his relationship with the rest of the family. Raphael, since he stays with Toby, does not seem to be a problem. Toby himself is, though. His parents will be back soon, and hopefully your father’s heart will return to the loving attitude he had before.”
Gabriel’s eyes reflected a deep pain for a moment. Pat wanted to ask him about it, but something more urgent took precedence.
“Something I saw tonight really bothered me, Gabriel,” he said. “It was really strange.” He then proceeded to tell his audience what he’d seen at the foot of the stairs.
Trudy’s eyes got wider and wider, and she covered her mouth with both hands. When Pat finished, she seemed frozen in that position. A whimper escaped her lips. After about a minute, with the other two watching her curiously, she was able to rasp out, “That explains it…”
“Explains what?” Pat looked from his sister to Gabriel, who nodded his head at Trudy’s unspoken question.
“Yes, you can tell him. You must.”
Trudy then told Pat of the events of the morning, and how she saw a black mist around their father. “That blackness is eating away at his soul. We have to find what’s doing this, and stop it.”
“But how? We don’t even know what ‘it’ is,” Pat objected, but gently.
“But we do. They’re back!” Trudy looked to Gabriel for confirmation. “Aren’t they? Not just one, but…who knows? And one has gotten to Dad!”
Gabriel nodded sadly. “The worst, and oldest, of them all.”
He then addressed Pat. “Nicodemus knows what to do. He will instruct you and your recruits. Pat, stay close to Trudy as you recruit your army. She has been given the ability to see into others’ souls. It is something she is only able to do when the time is right. She won’t see it during an ordinary day, but if needed, she will be able to see the inner torment of the Afflicted. She will then need your help in freeing them. You will need those ax handles, three of them—the longest you can find. Wood, not synthetic. Also, there will be a box delivered here tomorrow.
“You are to take it to Nick, along with the ax handles. And, Pat,” here he gazed very earnestly into the young man’s eyes, “take Miriam with you. She is key to our success.” At Pat’s surprised gasp, the angel smiled. “Yes, we know about her. Very much. Don’t ask anything now. Just do it; she’ll understand.”
Even in her fright and anguish, Trudy had to smile at the idea of her brother finally gaining an interest in a girl. It had been a long time; he hadn’t even looked at the opposite sex since a heart-rending break-up in high school. Pat caught her look, and grinned back at the memory of his time spent with his new friend.
Gabriel looked gently at the brother and sister, then slowly shimmered out of sight.
“Miriam?” Trudy lifted an eyebrow.
“Tell you later.” Pat sighed.
“Maybe it’ll be way better than that. Certainly sounds as if we’re all going to be on the same team.”
Trudy put her hand lovingly on her brother’s arm. “I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have on my side.”
The two of them then spent the better part of an hour filling out the required information on the applications. Trudy then took the papers downstairs.
The house was dark; apparently her dad had gone to bed. Her mom had had a bad headache, and had spent the evening in bed, so it was no surprise that she was not up. Trudy put the papers on the table by the front door, along with a note she had written:
Here are the applications. Pat and I didn’t fill them out because we wanted to. We did it because we love you.
She hoped that, in this way, she could reach him somehow. It was no longer a question of being able to withstand the shroud-like mist that had gone around him; she knew that she had to let love overcome her fear. It was the only way she would be able to guide him back from the abyss he seemed about to fall into.