Aaron

 

Chapter 1

Julia Sandler smiled as she scanned for yet another decent radio station in less than five minutes. She was so deep in the valley the newly-minted doctor doubted her cell would work properly. Nevertheless, the perfect fall weather combined with the beautiful scenery made such problems trivial for the native Cantabrigian.

Behind her was Virginia and she still had good ninety minutes worth of drive time before she arrived at her new position as a country doctor to a small but growing town named Perpetual. Initially Julia thought the town's name was a joke when she first read the letter, but once she checked the map Julia realized her benefactor's request was in earnest. His beautifully hand-written letter was resting on the passenger's seat, open and gently flapping in the wind.

Dr. Julia Sandler,

It is so good to say that after all these years! I am well aware you were finally told who your benefactor is. The truth is I am glad someone else did the job for me, as I am preternaturally shy of meeting strangers.

So, let's get on with it. Why did I pay for your medical career? Simple, I need your help. I come from a dear little town called Perpetual, North Carolina. It is slowly growing but alas the town lacks many of the finer things cities like Boston possess. For example: a decent Italian restaurant, an art cinema, and more seriously -- a hospital. I left Perpetual when I was a lad of twenty, and have made my fortune elsewhere. But Perpetual is where my heart lay and I have decided to build a new hospital in order to ensure that the town's residents aren't lacking for decent medical aid.

I also know that towns of this size have zero chance of recruiting good medical staff when bigger towns and cities have their glitzier attractions. So, I decided to support medical students, such as yourself, in order to persuade you to give Perpetual a chance, if only for one year. The pay is comparable to any town, not in North Carolina but Massachusetts so you won't feel cheated that way, at least.

One year can't be too much to ask, not when you sacrificed half your adult life for your career. People there are good, decent folks. Yes, you have your gossip hens, your town drunk, and the usual philanderer but you must agree that even they deserve a fair shot at going to their grave with all their limbs attached.

My financial donation towards your career is not binding, so if you decide to ignore my request I cannot stop you. But if you do, you'll break an old man's heart and disappoint a lot of people who are looking forward to seeing their children grow old and healthy. Yes, that was unfair but I am willing to be more than a little conniving to get my point across.

I hope you consider my plea and contact me as soon as you come to a decision.

Yours faithfully,
Cameron L. Longstreet, the Fifth

Julia was deeply moved by the letter and in the weeks that followed she was made busy with all the documentations and phone calls necessary to receive a practicing license in North Carolina. Not so surprisingly once her credentials were established the state's licensing board made it a smooth sailing for her to put all her affairs in order.

Julia would never figure out how it happened; perhaps it was the dappling effect the leaves had as the sun shone through them, or the fact she was lost in a daydream but she did not see the little boy dash into the road until she was only twenty feet away from the frozen figure. Julia did not hesitate; she swerved to her right and slammed into a tree at nearly forty miles per hour. She wasn't conscious when the airbag exploded on her face and chest, burning her forehead and cheeks.


"Armistead; that has got to be the stupidest thing you've done." The man's voice said firmly but not unkindly.

"I'm sorry papa." The child's voice was both petulant and tearful.

Julia wondered who the hell named their kids Armistead anymore, and wasn't there a ship with the same name?  She decided these questions needed an answer and opened her eyes. The first word out of her mouth turned into a painful cough and she rolled to her side. Suddenly she felt rough hands gently press her flat on her back and the coughing subsided. The invalid turned her head slightly to the right and saw a man in early forties, eyes so blue because his face was deeply tanned. She then saw the sheriff's badge and gun. She opened her mouth to identify herself but another throat-shredding cough clawed its way free.

"Don't move, please," the stranger said. He placed a jam jar filled with steaming liquid under her chin and said, "Sip this twice. That should make the coughing go away."

Julia did as she was told and felt the liquid burn down her throat. For a moment she felt her gorge rise but managed to hold it down by biting her tongue.

"I am so sorry," the man suddenly blurted out. "My son shouldn't have been anywhere near the road ... and oh man, your car. I am really sorry."

Julia gave a single brave nod and searched the room for the auto destroyer. She spotted the boy and immediately noted the family resemblance. She smiled a little and gave a wink. The boy's tearful eyes cleared at once as if he was absolved of all his youthful sins.

"I'm not done with you yet," The father admonished. "Go downstairs and clean the dinner table."

The two watched the boy take off, too glad to escape adult scrutiny.

"My name is Julia..."

"I know, I checked your ID."

"And you are..."

"Sorry about that. I'm Marcus Stuart. The lawman for these parts."

"These parts?" Julia repeated, confused.

Marcus' eyes smiled though his lips retained their grim line. "Yes, I saw the letter from Mr. Longstreet. The population around here isn't so big that every town needs a sheriff. Perpetual got the hospital, Aaron has the sheriff's office."

"Does that actually work?"

"It does when the bar is located in Aaron."

Julia felt a hysterical laugh rise and suppressed it. "It's not nice to make a patient laugh."

"Really? I was taught laughter is the best medicine."

"Not when she's got bruised ribs."

"Sorry about that. I tried to contact the hospital in Perpetual but..."

"They don't have an ambulatory corp yet. I know." Julia said, slowly raising herself on her elbows. "The building itself was finished only six weeks ago."

"But from what I hear it's state of the art."

Julia nodded, "It certainly is."

"Do you want to try sitting up?"

"Actually I would."

Marcus helped her to the sitting position, his touch remarkably delicate for a man. Julia took few deep breaths and checked her ribs. It was seatbelt bruising as she suspected. She gingerly felt the burns on her face and knew the airbag had left its mark.

"Hey, you look good to me." Marcus blurted out then immediately began blushing. "I mean when I saw the car, you know."

"Have to agree with you on that." Julia lightly remarked, ignoring the man's changing color. "But I'm going to get ribbed when I get to the hospital. Their doctor becoming their first patient."

This time Marcus's smile slid into his lips. "Better than a sheriff ending up in his own drying tank."

Julia coughed a laugh and pulled away the blanket. She wiggled her toes and checked her legs. Nothing below the waist. Her hands were badly swollen though.

"I've got some poultice for that, if you want." Marcus pointed to her hands and offered. "I didn't want to intrude on your territory."

"I was wondering if I could sit outside for a bit." Julia asked. "Then I could take care of my hands. I feel slightly claustrophobic. I think it's a delayed reaction to the crash."

"Do you want to try and stand up on your own?"

Julia was glad he respected her personal space. Most people completely forget invalids still needed their privacy and just grabbed them any which way they saw fit. Julia managed to go downstairs with Marcus hovering in front of her in case she passed out and fell forward.

The sunset was even more beautiful than daytime and Julia immediately sank into peace as she watched the scene laid out before her like a Millet painting. Marcus sat next to her holding a small bowl of soaked fabric along with two open beer bottles. The wraps smelled faintly of herbs, probably witch hazel Julia guessed. She wrapped her wrists and hands, leaving only her fingers free. After she was done with the task she scanned the horizon once more and closed her eyes.

"Listening for the banjo tune from Deliverance?" Marcus asked.

Julia laughed outright this time. "No, just listening to that..." She answered and raised a single finger into the air.

"That?"

"Silence."

"Oh, that. We got a lot of that."

"I'm surprised I don't here television."

"What you're asking is if we hicksvillers get television at all. Not cable but definitely satellite and Armistead's banned from the boob tube for a month. Starting tonight."

"Boob tube?"

"Sorry about that. I have to watch my language now we've got a guest."

"It's all right. I've heard far worse. Mostly from my patients."

"Why? You're their doctor for Christ's sake. The only reason you're there is because you want to help them."

"That's precisely why I get bashed. Not that the patients really mean it. Most of them are so much in pain they've lost self-control. It's tragic actually."

"You feel for them, don't you?" Marcus asked, not bothering to hide his curiosity. "Isn't that bad for your vocation?"

"Maybe, but it's also my strength. People thrive under all sorts of circumstances. Doctors are no different."

"Well I'm glad you're clear-headed enough to talk about such serious things. I don't think Perpetual would let me inside their town line if anything happened to you."

Julia smiled and said, "Well then you can strike back by setting up a bar in their neck of the woods."

Marcus grinned, "You have no idea how many times I dreamt about that. To them we're just poor cousins; half step from trailer park trash."

"You're considered trailer trash?" Julia said, realizing that her tongue was following the gingerbread man. "They must be perfect genetic specimens then."

Now it was her turn to blush but she was too tired and too relaxed to put in the effort. When Marcus didn't act flustered she knew he was a man's man. He made peace with his sex and sexuality and was too secure to let a little flirty remark undo him.

Then she saw the wedding ring. Damn.

"I'm sorry ... I didn't mean..."

Marcus' smile disappeared. "My wife died giving birth to Armistead, our second son. It was during winter and we got snowed in because we live in a valley. There was no way we could get help through the squall though G-d knows, I tried."

"Your older son?"

"He left as soon as he turned 16 and moved in with my wife's parents in Florida. His heart broke when he had to bury his mother on his own. You see I tried to ram my way through the snow and got stuck. I left Jessie alone; I regret that now to the bone but I wasn't thinking straight back then, you see."

"I do understand, and I have seen it."

Marcus held her firmly with his gaze. "That's why we're so glad Perpetual's got a working hospital now. So people like my Phoebe don't have to die so needlessly."

"I'll drink to that," Julia said and managed to wrap her fingers around the neck of a bottle.

The two saluted each other with their drinks and watched the sunset bleed into night.

 

 

Chapter 2

Julia peered at her watch. It was barely five in the morning but the noise downstairs told her the Stuart family was well awake. Obviously morning begins before crack of dawn around here, she thought sourly as she trudged to the bathroom. Julia gave a mental sigh of relief when she saw the toilet and bathtub. Realizing the outrageousness of her thoughts she began giggling. What did she expect? An outhouse built into the second floor? Entertained by her own foolishness Julia managed to take a reasonable facsimile of a shower.

While she toweled herself dry, Julia checked the bruising. It was already fading though the yellowish, arsenic tint made her wince. The swelling on her hands had died down completely even though the wrists were still tight and painful to rotate fully.

I was damn lucky, Julia admitted, totally sober now. She then peered at the foggy mirror and saw the fresh scabs on her face. Well, maybe just plain lucky.

The two toothbrushes lying side by side on the sink's ledge caught her eye. Julia openly smiled, ignoring the pain on her cheeks. Marcus was a good father, that much was evident, and in many ways he was the kind of man who would attract her in spite of the age difference. But she wasn't looking to start a relationship when she knew that in a year or two she would return to Boston.

The scent of bacon hit her full force as she made her way downstairs.

"That smells good!" Julia said as she entered the kitchen.

"Hope you like microwaved oatmeal." Marcus said as he finished spooning the mess into bowls. "I have to be at work by six so I cheated. But I do have maple syrup if you're interested."

Julia snatched a glance at the microwave then turned to see Marcus staring at her with laughter in his eyes. Flushing badly Julia scurried to her seat and kept her head judiciously low.

"This is good," She commented after downing half a bowl of oatmeal.

"I can see that," Armistead said, amazed at the speed with which she ate.

Julia gave him a narrow glance and then ruined the effect by smiling. "I didn't realize I was hungry until I smelled bacon."

"I wouldn't be surprised," Marcus said, refilling her bowl. "You missed lunch and dinner yesterday, and your body needs food to heal properly."

"I was meaning to ask, what was in that wrap yesterday?" Julia said, showing her hands. "It worked great!"

"I don't know, actually." Marcus confessed. "It was Mrs. Simon's mixture. She's the local herbalist."

"I'm guessing she's not some new age guru."

"No, her folks have been doing herbal medicine for as long as there was Aaron. Helps a lot when we have limited resources. Trust me, with a growing son who gets into one mess after another..."

Armistead wrinkled his nose at the comment but kept eating his eggs instead of making a verbal repartee. Before Julia could join in the bantering the phone rang. Marcus excused himself from the table and went to the living room.

"So, what do you do?" Armistead asked as he finished his meal.

"I'm what's known as general practitioner. I do family practice which covers usual maladies, not like the ones you see on television."

"Still sounds cool," Armistead said.

"Sorry about that," Marcus said, returning to the breakfast table. "It was about your car."

Julia looked at him, "Where is it?"

"With Danny, he's the closest mechanic we've got who can handle the damage done to your car. He's been at it all night but he isn't sure if the car can be fixed, to tell you the truth."

"I'm not surprised," Julia said in a tired voice, and then saw Armistead blanche. "But at least everyone's okay, and that's all that matters, especially for this doc. And even better, I got lots of insurance."

Marcus gave her a grateful look, "C'mon son, we need to get you ready for school."

"School? This early?" Julia asked.

"No, he usually stays over at his friend's place until school opens."

"Jamie's got the best videogames."

"Which you aren't going to go anywhere near. I already called Sam and told him about your punishment."

Armistead's bottom lip made its presence known as he marched away from the table. Julia quirked a smile but she managed to keep quiet as Marcus rolled his eyes.

"Look, the town's half mile down the road. You can't miss it because it's the only place with more than three buildings around here. There's a library and the town hall if you get really desperate for entertainment. I managed to pull your luggage out of the car before it got towed. They're in the bedroom's closet. And that includes your purse."

"Did you manage to get my cell?"

Marcus blinked, "You know I didn't even bother looking. I'm sorry."

"Don't worry. It's probably rolling under the seat or something if it survived the crash to begin with. You should get to work."

"We don't have any rush hour traffic here," Marcus deadpanned. "It'll take me all of ten minutes to get to the office if I decide to walk."

Julia stifled yet another giggle and Marcus watched in amusement as she tried to compose herself. It was only then she realized behind the warmth of his eyes there was desire.

"I should get going though, have to drop off Armistead. Have a good day, Julia."

The words weren't intimate but the lazy drawl he used to call her name made Julia only too aware she was the lone female in a male household. She surreptitiously watched Marcus get ready for his job and gave a nod of goodbye when he left the kitchen. Only when she heard the front door close did Julia give an audible sigh of relief.

Okay, that was hot. Julia admitted to herself then giggled again. I must be really desperate if I'm thinking about jumping the sheriff. Either that or I'm still not 100%. Either way he's a no-go ... though he looked damn good in them jeans.

Julia buried her face in her hands and burst out laughing.

Oh G-d, my libido's gone pear-shaped. Maybe I need a second shower.

Still laughing at herself Julia slowly examined the house. It was old but built to last, with wooden beams, brick walls, and floors that were probably put in when the house was originally constructed. Something nagged Julia but it wasn't until she was getting her second cup of coffee when she realized what was missing. There weren't any pictures. Not even ones of Armistead.

Phoebe, that was her name. Julia recalled. He might not have any pictures of Armistead without his wife. And didn't I read somewhere rural lawmen might not want pictures of their families and friends available for bad guys to get a hold of? And in these parts there might be lunatics who could do some serious damage and then disappear into the mountains.

Julia opted to go back to sleep but only tossed and turned until nine. She thumped her pillow in frustration before getting up. The day promised to be one of those hot and muggy August servings so she put on shorts and t-shirt before braving the sun. The road in front of the house was dirt-paved but it was easy enough to follow it into town.

Aaron reminded Julia of Midwestern towns during the turn of the century with its barbershop, tobacconist, diner, bakery, post office and like. People were moving about and a few either gave a nod or a lift of their hats to acknowledge her presence. She returned the courtesy and strolled into the library.

Julia took a deep breath, loving the musty, living scent of books and faded papers. She hit the bell on the reference desk.

"Can I help you?" The voice came from behind.

Julia turned around to see a woman who couldn't be over twenty-five. "Yes, I was wondering if you have some reading material about the history of Aaron and Perpetual?"

"You must be the doctor. My name is Mrs. Simon."

"Oh, you're the herbalist?" Julia was taken back. She expected a wizened old woman for both the position of librarian and local white witch. "Thank you for whatever it was you gave to Marcus."

"I'm glad it did the job," Mrs. Simon said. "And we do have few books about the history of this place if you really are interested."

"I am," Julia said.

"Well, let me give you a rundown of Aaron, the cliffnotes version. We were established in 1813, first as a hunting outpost and then grew when Perpetual drove anyone who wasn't an established Lutheran out of their town. The largest population we had was back in 1864 but then small pox and malaria came with the soldiers who managed to survive the Civil War. We're only four thousand now but our township covers hundreds of square miles, right into the mountains so the population count is probably inaccurate."

"This entire valley then?"

"Almost, here we are. This section has what you want." Mrs. Simon said, pointing to a book-filled shelf.

Within minutes Julia became engrossed in the old volumes.


Julia didn't know what time it was until her stomach started to rumble loudly. She looked at her watch and was shocked to see it was past two. She reshelved the books and made a beeline for the diner. The place was totally empty so Julia had great service. After a light perusal she ordered a BLT and a cup of tomato soup. With one bite Julia knew she made the right choice and dug in.

Feeling full and drowsy after the meal, Julia decided to take a longer stroll. She had circled the entire town before she came to the conclusion that the church wasn't within the town proper.

They probably have it somewhere right outside town. I bet it's near the park. Julia concluded and made her way to what she presumed was the town's central park. It didn't take long for her to see that she was right, though not in the way she guessed.

Julia first discovered an old and disused cemetery. At first she was shocked by its size considering how small Aaron was. Then she remembered town's history and sure enough most of the grave markers showed people had perished from 1864-1866. When she read the names and age on the tombstones Julia realized women and children weren't spared either. For a moment she felt tears sting her eyes. So many dead, and for what?

She nearly stumbled over the cornerstone buried halfway between a willow tree and a stream threatening to become a respectable creek. Julia examined the area and concluded that once a church stood on the spot. Not surprising since the cemetery was located right next to it. But guessing from the age of the grand old willow tree, the church had to have been laid to rest before WWII.

Julia sat under the tree, feeling troubled in spite of the beautiful weather.

Now, being a total northern bigot, I have to wonder ... where's the church? Shouldn't I have heard church bells by now? Even in Boston they ring on the hour or at least for noon. But I didn't hear a thing which is why I didn't bother to check my watch. And why did they build a new church? Because they needed bigger consecrated ground? Was there a development project that went belly up? And where's the new church anyway?

She climbed up the willow tree, as high as she could manage with her injuries. When Julia felt she could go no further she studied the panoramic scene. She concluded the old cemetery was the southern border of the town but she could not spot a church steeple anywhere, not even a bell tower.

"What are you doing up there?" Julia looked down to see Marcus peering up at her with open amusement. "Be careful or you might hurt yourself."

Julia climbed down the tree, feeling like a teenager who got caught sneaking back into the house hours after curfew.

"What are you looking for?" Marcus asked. "An Indian raiding party signal?  Or a Starbucks?"

"No," Julia struggled to find a tactful way to phrase the question.  Realizing that was impossible she asked, "I was looking for a church?"

"Oh," Marcus said, tipping his hat backwards. "We got one ten minutes outside Aaron, and that's driving time, not walking. Did Mrs. Simon tell you about Perpetual's version of holy cleansing?"

Julia nodded.

"Well, what she probably didn't tell you was the fact that Perpetual's good G-d-fearing folks got the idea that a local catholic church was kidnapping little children and selling them to the papacy, or some such nonsense. They barred the door on mass one Sunday morning and set the place on fire. Killed everyone in it, which is why we grew so quickly."

"Are you serious?"

Marcus nodded, "So people got to taking worship in their own homes on Sundays. We celebrate like everyone else for the big occasions but it's the norm for us to say our prayers in the privacy of our living rooms. Why, do you want to say your thanks or something?"

Julia shook her head, "No, I was marking off all the buildings and saw there was no church."

Marcus' confused smile turned genuine. "Okay, if you say so. This is such a peaceful place, don't you think?"

Julia nodded and started to walk towards a particularly beautiful gravestone she wanted to show to Marcus. She didn't take five steps before she tripped over the same damn cornerstone. Her arms uselessly pinwheeling Julia would have crashed headfirst if Marcus didn't catch her mid-fall. Julia felt wild embarrassment as she steadied herself. It was then she saw the scars. Marcus' shirt cuffs had ridden up his wrists and exposed the slash marks on the veined skin.

Julia didn't need a second examination to know what those scars were. Some time in the past Sheriff Stuart tried to commit suicide.

 

 

Chapter Three

Marcus' face didn't change as he pulled down the sleeves, and he didn't try to explain away the scars either. Julia didn't know what to say or do. Suicides may be one of the most selfish acts a human being was capable of, but it was also, without doubt, one of the most intimate and she didn't feel comfortable discussing the topic with a man she met only that morning.

"Sheriff, glad I found you."

The friendly, panting voice startled the couple and both turned to the intruder. The man looked to be in his twenties, open-faced, with a riot of freckles to match his wild copper hair.

"It's Johnny. He's gone lightening bug again."

Marcus' head dropped back and a long, painful moan came forth. "Why oh why did I not lock him up when I had a chance? Julia, this is my deputy, Thomas Kilrain."

"Nice to meet you. Sounds like you had a fun-filled afternoon."

"And more fun's to be had," Marcus dryly said. "I have to take care of this. How bad is the damage?"

"Just a trashcan in front of the bakery."

"I'm betting the library's next." Julia heard Marcus say as the two men walked away.

Julia smiled. If Aaron needed a sheriff to keep control of a local arsonist the town wasn't doing too shabbily. Suddenly, an acrid odor hit her nose, making her wince. Julia quickly turned around to face a man staring at her. He looked nearly eighty years old until Julia saw his hands. Closer to sixty would be the truth, she concluded. Then she took another sniff and realized the abominable smell was reeking from the man's open mouth.

Is that turpentine? Julia wondered in horror.

"You shouldn't be here," The man semi-growled at her. "This is holy ground."

"I'll go where I please," Julia said in a firm, authoritative voice.

The stranger frowned and studied her more closely. "You're not from here. You're new, aren't you?"

"I had a car accident right outside of town."

"I can see that by the scratches on your face."

"You're Johnny, right?" Julia guessed and thinly smiled when she saw the man take a step back. "You should be careful. The sheriff's out looking for you, Johnny."

"I ain't done anything wrong!" He cried out petulantly. "Garbage don't belong none, not even the local high-n-mighty Sheriff Stuart!"

"Not the garbage, but the garbage can? That's another story, Johnny."

"You have no right to call me Johnny. I'm older than you so you have to call me Mr. Kilrain."

"You're related to the deputy?"

"I don't want anything to do with that abortion!" Johnny Kilrain hissed with fervor. "It's not my fault we've got the same blood."

"It is peaceful here, isn't it?" Julia suddenly switched the topic in order to confuse the drunk. "But then all holy ground should be, don't you think?"

The man suddenly deflated and sat on the grass as if the conversation exhausted him. "Yeah, it should be, but it ain't. At least not around here."

"The winter storm Marcus talked about. Must have been horrific. I'm surprised to see this willow tree standing," Julia said giving the tree few good thumps. "They don't take winters very well."

"When was that?" Johnny said to himself, scrunching up his face in furious concentration. "That was right after ... no, during the Korean ... whatever they called it. I remember reading about how bad the winter was over there and feeling grateful we didn't have to deal with all that snow. And then what happens? We get the worst..."

"Johnny, that was in the fifties," Julia gently interrupted him.

"Yeah, well it was the last and the worst winter we ever got around here." Johnny said, standing up. "A lot of town folks died because no one was prepared for the cold. We had burial duties round the clock that winter."

Julia was about to question further when she noticed Johnny's face tighten up as if in pain. She followed his gaze and saw Marcus and his deputy approaching them.

"There you are," Deputy Kilrain said. "You had us worried."

"I didn't do nothin' wrong!" Johnny immediately returned to his child-like persona.

"Yes you did. You know you did." Kilrain disagreed, using a mild tone. "C'mon, let's go and get you sobered up and maybe you can take a shower afterwards. I think Sheriff Stuart has some old clothes you can have, if you want."

"I'll go," Johnny grandly said. "But I don't want any one of ya to touch me, you hear? I won't stand for it!"

"No touching, I promise." Kilrain said as he led his charge away.

"Are you all right?" Marcus asked, "We saw you two talking but didn't want to surprise Johnny. He's got a bad habit of biting people when he's deep in the bottle."

"No, I'm fine. How is Johnny related to Deputy Kilrain?"

"He's been talking his yarn, hasn't he?" Marcus sighed. "Truth is the Kilrain family tree is more like a bamboo shoot with aspirations. Too many cousins getting biblical, if you know what I mean. Tom is the best of the lot and he's not the sharpest suit in the closet. Boy's got a good heart though and knows the difference between right and wrong. He's also blessed with that particular Kilrain charm -- the ability to talk people out of doing something foolish. Even ol'Johnny can spin a tale if you didn't notice. And to answer your question Johnny is Tom's uncle. Or we think. Nobody sober in Aaron would bet on that."

"That doesn't sound too good, for the town or for the deputy."

Marcus shook his head, "No, Tom's become Johnny's caretaker of sorts. And I don't have the heart to send Johnny away because if I did, Tom would be devastated. You see his uncle is all Tom's got left in the way of family."

"That's not going to last, if Johnny's drinking what I think he's drinking."

"The Kilrain specialty and nobody has a clue what the brew is made out of. But we can't stop him from killing himself slow if that's what he wants." Marcus admitted. "All we can do is catch him when he lights his pretty fires and sober him up."

"There isn't much one can do about alcoholics who refuse help."

"You must have had your fair share," Marcus said. "The way you dealt with Johnny. Most people, and that include the natives, would turn tail and run. But you held your ground. That speaks of experience and not the kind you get in a job environment."

Julia gave a tired smile and shrugged. She looked at the friendly blue eyes and decided to risk it. "My father is a class-A drunk when he's not a class-A neuro surgeon. Not violent but ... still."

"He must be proud of you, following his steps."

"Actually, we haven't spoken since I entered residency. He was livid when I informed him I didn't want to go into his field. In the medical world, you don't get much lower on the totem pole than a family doctor."

"That's just plain stupid ego," Marcus shook his head. "People like that never made much sense to me, and I sincerely hope they never do."

Julia smiled, "I think I'll go back to the house and take a break."

"Feel free to yell at Armistead if he's watching television. In fact, I insist."

Julia laughed and waved farewell as she left Marcus amidst the gravestones.


The house was quiet, too quiet for Julia. She saw the knapsack on the living room couch and expected to hear Armistead making whole lot of noise, a G-d-given right for a boy. A slight scraping from the ceiling above attracted her attention.

"Armistead?" She called out as she walked up the stairs. "Is that you?"

"Yeah, it's me." Armistead called out faintly.

Julia saw the ladder leading up to what must be the attic. She climbed up and was nearly crushed by the heat.

"Aren't you hot?" She asked when she spotted the boy quickly closing the lid on a shoebox.

"I just came up here to get some stuff."

"Okay, well come back down soon. I wouldn't want you to pass out up here."

Julia went into the kitchen and poured herself a cold glass of orange juice. Armistead made his appearance not five minutes after.

"What do you keep in the attic? And wouldn't it be better to keep it in your room instead? It feels like an oven up there."

Armistead looked at her with a steady gaze, as if sizing her up for a big secret. Julia pretended not to notice and poured him a glass of juice.

"My mom's pictures," Armistead softly said. "My dad doesn't like to see them so he put them away after she died. I don't want to bug him about it so I go up there sometimes and ... you know."

"I most sincerely do," Julia answered. "My mom died when I was fifteen. I carry a picture of her in my wallet."

And I wonder if my dear old dad was sober when he drove both of them into the river.

"Really? You carry one?" Armistead asked.

"Yes, let me show you." She fetched her purse and pulled out her small collection. "This one was when she was in college."

"That's a funny haircut." Armistead said as he studied the photograph.

"I agree but that was the rage back in the day."

"Who's this?"

"Oh, that was a friend who went to med school with me. She's practicing in Australia now."

"Cool! I want to go there someday!"

"You and about a million other Americans." Julia remarked. After making sure the boy was fascinated with her pictures, she asked, "Armistead, may I ask when is your birthday?"

"Why?"

"Because if I can arrange it I might get Winnie to send you something special from her part of the world."

"January 5th, 1994. And I really, really want an Aborigine boomerang."

Julia burst out laughing. "Well, I think that is one definite possibility."


"You promised him what?" Marcus asked as they took their seats by the front porch.

"One genuine made-in-Aussieland boomerang."

Marcus smiled, "Great, then he can break things in the house twice as fast."

Julia chuckled and took a sip of the beer. "By the way, thank you for the wonderful dinner."

"Nothing at all, just consider it a part of the Stuart Bed-and-Breakfast experience."

"I was meaning to ask, could I use your phone tomorrow to call for a taxi? I have to be in Perpetual by Sunday."

"Don't worry about that -- I'll drive you there. There are few packages I have to pick up."

"What? Are you the local postman too?" Julia teased.

"No, some of the folks are elderly and they can't see too well anymore. It's also an excuse to visit this new hospital of yours. People are dying of curiosity, and I'm afraid I'm one of them."

"Well, then you'll get the full tour, courtesy of yours truly."

"Mighty hospitable of you."

The two drifted off into an amiable silence until Marcus excused himself for the night. Julia continued to sit outside, enjoying the cool, refreshing air when something jarred her from her relaxed state. There wasn't a sound -- not one bird singing, not one cricket making its music.

The air was dead.

 

 

Chapter Four

Julia didn't need the alarm clock to wake her as she got very little sleep. In the face of another beautiful August morning she was more embarrassed than concerned about her discovery from night before. Didn't she remark how nice the silence was when she spent the first evening out on the porch with Marcus? And didn't he comment as much that nocturnal peace was the norm?

I'm losing it, Julia admonished herself, as she got dressed. If I behave like this the first forty-eight hours with some of the nicest people on planet earth, I have a snowball's chance in hell of lasting a year in Perpetual.

And when she joined the Stuart family for their morning meal her previous reservations faded away.

"I've spared the microwave today. Hope you like scrambled eggs and burnt toast." Marcus said as he heaped jam on to the charred bread. "The damn thing's dying. I should just take it out back and put it out of its misery."

"No!" Armistead shouted. "I want it for my science project."

"What are you going to do?" Julia asked, smiling. "Make everyone breakfast?"

"Not telling; it's going to be a surprise."

Marcus gave a sly glance at Julia, "Just don't short circuit the school and blackout the valley, please. Catawba will have a fit if you take out an entire grid."

Julia giggled, "Catawba? Sounds like an exotic form of skin infection."

"It's a river." Marcus explained, grinning. "Though your version does have its merits."

"Is the company a minor one? Because I thought Duke Power was the main muscle here."

Marcus didn't respond immediately and Julia suddenly got the feeling he didn't know the answer.

"I think they merged recently," Marcus finally said. "But the truth is I've called it Catawba for so long I can't make the mental switch."

Julia realized Marcus was lying but decided not to react. "Pray we don't have deregulation around here or the bill's going to be outrageous."

"I'll remember that," Marcus quipped. He turned to Armistead and said, "Son, you're going to be eating that plate for lunch if you don't finish it soon."

"Why? What's the hurry?" Armistead asked.

"Johnny's waiting for me at the office."

Armistead suddenly tensed with anticipation. "Did he burn something? Again?"

"Yes and no, he didn't burn down your school so you're still on the clock."

Julia bit the inside of her cheek in order not to burst out laughing at the look of sheer disappointment on the child's face.

Marcus rolled his eyes and sighed as Armistead trundled off to his room to retrieve his school bag.

"There are days I wonder whose son he is." Marcus deadpanned. "I remember loving my classes and professors."

"Where did you go?"

"Harvard."

"Excuse me?"

Marcus burst out laughing while Julia tried not to look too flustered.

"Yes, I went to the Crimson eons ago, when I was a brash young lad. Made quite a noise back then: a boy from these parts making it all the way to Athens of the East."

"I ... I thought you were a Duke man, myself."

"Nice recovery."

"Thank you," Julia said, smiling and blushing simultaneously. "I really have to get over my preconceptions."

"Don't try too hard," Marcus softly said. "I like you as you are, and that's including your biases."

Julia didn't get to make a smart reply. Marcus leaned forward and gave a kiss on her cheek. "Hope you have a good day and try not to climb any more trees, if you can."

Julia stood, dumbfounded, as she watched Marcus get into his truck alongside his son.


Julia walked by the attic door three times before she caved into her curiosity. Just a little peek. That'll be all. Find the mother's picture -- make a copy and then return it before Armistead finds out it's gone. Then I can make a present for the boy and he can carry it around in his bag without dad being the wiser.

The morning was still blessedly cool so Julia knew it would be a pleasurable treasure hunt. Julia grinned; this was the kind of attic she dreamt of as a girl inspiring to become the next Nancy Drew. How many summers did she spend imagining places such as this, discovering old family secrets and buried treasures? Not to mention the added bonus of solving a crime or two?

She saw most of the trunks had padlocks though many were rusted and there were at least three types she couldn't even identify. The shoebox she found quickly enough and Julia made herself comfortable as she flipped through the contents.

The first picture was a framed 4x6 of Armistead and Marcus, standing side by side in the middle of a river, both holding fish and grinning in total masculine triumph. Then she opened a small velvet box and lost her breath. She flipped to the back and read:

Southworth & Hawes, Tremont Row

I know that name, but from where? Julia closed her eyes and focused on the diaphanous memory until she was able to grasp it and fully remember. Mother had inherited one and told me it was valuable artwork. It's called Daguerreotype, but that can't be.

And yet she was staring at Marcus, or at least when he was in school from the frock he had on. The crow lines weren't in existence yet and even through the black-and-white his blue eyes remained startling.

It's got to be a replica; one of those college things that frats or secret societies like to do. Julia thought. Have to remember he went to the Big H. And heaven knows what's the norm in that rarefied air.

She traced the youthful jawline and admitted to herself, if I met you then I would've fallen head over heels. You are almost irresistible now, twenty years later. If I met you then, maybe my father wouldn't have been so successful in causing so much damage.

Trying to stymie her maudlin thoughts Julia put back the treasure and spotted another, less fanciful article. It was an ornate cardboard, folded into a picture wallet. On the front cover was:

Open Ye Gates. Swing Wide, Ye Portals.

Louisiana Purchase Exposition

Slowly, with indefinable dread, she opened it. Another picture was nestled within - one with Marcus, a dark-haired woman with longing eyes and a young boy no older than ten. They were dressed in Edwardian wardrobe.

Is Marcus some sort of a history nut? Does he attend the re-enactment of Gettysburg every summer too? Will I find him in some sort of Reb getup if I dig any deeper?

But Julia couldn't. Her hands were shaking and she had difficult enough time returning the shoebox to its hiding place. I need air. I need to clear my head and stop my imagination from doing something cataclysmically stupid.

She returned to her temporary bedroom and sat on the floor, trying to repress the fears from the night before. Finally Julia admitted to herself that things just didn't add up right.

I remember the summers I spent in Maine as a child. We didn't have cars honking and trucks backing up at 4 a.m. but we had birds and insects and feral dogs calling each other. But now, even with sunrise I don't hear a damn thing. Not even a single bird. Things should be moving about, and I should hear them, but there's nothing. There's absolutely nothing to listen to.

Julia opened one of her two suitcases and pulled out a flattened, ratty backpack. It was more of a security blanket than anything of use but Julia kept it with her throughout college and afterwards. The bag was the last thing her mother bought for her before her death. Julia packed it with some clothes, her wallet, a pocketknife, and a flashlight she bought in a hardware store right before she left Boston. Without thinking too hard she marched out back to what she presumed was Marcus' work shed. Julia studied the well-ordered space and immediately saw what she wanted - rope and a roll of electric tape.

I'll pay him back after I get to Perpetual. In fact I'll write him a big fat check for everything he's done and even a fatter apology for what I'm about to do. And if he's a good a man as I think he is, he'll understand why I did what I did. He'll probably laugh at me and tell his friends about the loony Northerner he played host to, but that's his right. And leaving here is mine.


Julia didn't realize how small the bag was compared to her adult figure and the straps immediately began chaffing her shoulder. An hour into the hike her right shoulder's skin broke open and the blood quickly attracted flies and mosquitoes. Julia cursed herself and sat down to examine the wound. Only then did she remember she didn't bring any water either.

I is a doctor, Julia thought sarcastically. Stupid, useless Boston chick is what I am right now. What the hell, just push on and hope I come across some running water when I go into the woods.

The black smoke became visible when she stood up. Something large was burning to the west of her position. Julia slowly approached the crest of the hill and looked down below. The scene that greeted her made Julia drop to her belly and ball into fetal position.

There was a large bonfire and surrounding it were Mrs. Simon and two strangers. Julia finally gathered her courage and peered through the tall, wild grass and watched the librarian make some arm gestures all the while uttering words she couldn't hear. A loud crack from the fire drew Julia's attention to it.

That's a body. Julia thought numbly. Oh dear G-d, please let it be a corpse.

She belly crawled halfway down the hill and turned her heels back towards the direction she came from. She couldn't run far with the bag digging deeper so she stashed it in a boulder outcropping, planning to retrieve it when she was able to. Under the murderous sun, Julia sprinted back, reaching Marcus' home in less than thirty minutes. And to her great relief the familiar green truck pulled up to the carport. Julia was about to raise her arms and shout when she saw Marcus get out of the car. The entire right side of his chambray shirt was so dark with blood, it looked black.

Julia's arms dropped as if she were shot. She couldn't comprehend what could have bled so copiously until Marcus cupped his right arm and bend over as if he were in great pain. Even with that physical demonstration from the sheriff, Julia stood still and watched Marcus enter his house. She then followed him in through the kitchen door in the back.

"Julia?" Marcus called out weakly.

"What is it?" Julia said, adjusting her shirt so her shoulder wound was hidden from view.

"I need help," Marcus answered.

Julia took a deep breath and entered the living room. Marcus was leaning against the banister, trying to take off his sticky shirt. His undershirt was almost all red.

"What happened?" Julia asked.

"It's Johnny. He hung himself last night." Marcus said and closed his eyes. "Tom and I found him this morning."

"How?" Julia asked, truly horrified by the news.

"G-d help me, he's been in the tank so many times I got lazy. I didn't bother to take his shoes. He used his shoelaces and when Tom saw what he had done, the boy turned and attacked me, blaming me for his uncle's death."

"Did he cut you?"

Marcus nodded and showed his right forearm. The gash was deep and clean right into the muscle. "He used the standard issue knife."

"We need to clean that," Julia said, too glad to retreat into familiar territory. "If we could tape the wound and close it stitches might not be necessary. I'm worried about blood poisoning though."

"Do something because I will not go to a clinic. If I did he'd be on report and I won't do that to him, not now. It's my fault and I won't let him take the fall for it."

"We can divvy up the blame later. Let's take care of this first." Julia said and led Marcus to the kitchen where she washed the wound. She examined the cut closely and asked, "Do you have a first-aid kit?"

"Under the bathroom sink."

Julia retrieved the box and made fast use of the gauze, the medical tape, and the small bottle of antiseptic.

"You lost substantial amount of blood," Julia said as she examined the ruined clothes.

"I lost a lot more than that today," Marcus said with great sadness.

"Where's Tom now?"

"With his wife, Edith. She was the only one he would listen to."

"I hope she gave him a sedative because in that emotional state, you can't predict what he's going to do."

"I know," Marcus said, tears slowly masking his eyes. "But I can't ... I can't hurt him, Julia. He's like a brother to me."

"Then call Edith and see if Tom's under her care."

Marcus automatically followed Julia's recommendation.

"Hi, it's me. Is he? That's good, that's good. So he's asleep now? How long? That sounds even better. No, don't worry about a thing." Julia watched Marcus let out a big sigh and drop his shoulders. "I'm not going to tell anyone about what happened. As far as everyone's concerned, I had an accident trying to cut down Johnny's body. So, no, don't worry about Tom getting into any trouble. You just take care of your man. Thanks, Edith. Call me if you need anything."

"He's asleep then?" Julia asked.

"Yeah, will be for a while yet. She gave him a sleeping draught."

"Take a shower, get cleaned up and rest. I know you're the sheriff but you're not going to do any good half-conscious and bleeding to death."

"I know, thanks for your help." Marcus said as he slowly climbed up the stairs.

Julia didn't answer. Instead, she went to the kitchen, poured a large tumbler of whiskey and water, and went upstairs. She knocked the door on Marcus' bedroom.

"It's all right," Marcus called out.

Julia entered to find Marcus only wearing his jeans, looking pale and damaged under his tan. Julia soundlessly picked up the blood-soaked t-shirt and placed the whiskey glass on the bedside table.

"It's to help you sleep," She explained.

Marcus walked up to her and gently brushed away a stray lock of hair from her ear. "Some company would be even better."

Julia's eyes unfocused as she stared at the center of Marcus' chest. This man is something more than I know. He's something I don't understand and that's why he's so frightening and alluring at the same time. Whatever he is, Marcus Stuart is more than what he pretends to be and I can't fall any deeper because if I do, there's a chance I might never find my way back out again.

Julia tipped her head back and studied the eyes that radiated both sadness and desire. She only allowed herself to kiss him on the cheek before stepping back.

"Armistead might come home," She said. "It would be better for everyone if you stayed up here and I stayed downstairs. In case anything or everything goes to hell in a hand basket."

"As you wish," Marcus whispered.

Julia stepped out of the room and nearly ran down the stairs, trying to put as much distance between her and her desire. She was about to throw the clothes into the trash bin when she recognized a familiar smell. She took a closer sniff and noticed that under the iron tang of blood, there was the scent of smoke.

 

 

Chapter Five

When Julia heard the car come roaring down the dirt road she felt her heart speed up painfully. Did Tom wake up with bloodlust? She took a glance around the room to see if Marcus left behind his gun.

No such luck.

Julia peeked out the window and saw a new Chevy Trailblazer pull up front. She immediately recognized Armistead, and the man who was sitting next to him. He was one of the strangers at the bonfire. The boy turned and said something, and the man responded with a fierce hug before allowing the child to get out of the truck.

Julia opened the door and quickly whisked Armistead inside.

"Is dad okay? Mr. Ticknor said there was trouble at dad's office."

Julia hugged the worried boy and said firmly, "He's fine. He's got a cut but I took care of it."

Armistead relaxed once he had the reassurance of an adult and one who was trained in the medical profession.

"Mr. Ticknor, was that the man who drove you home?"

"Yeah, he's the principal."

Julia took a deep breath, "We should let your dad sleep a few more hours. Want to show me around?"

Armistead gave an anxious glance towards the second floor but silently nodded in agreement. Without a word he grabbed Julia's right hand and led her out to the west of his home, towards a dry creek bed. The two strolled in silence until Armistead spotted something embedded into the dirt. He picked up the object and dusted it.

"That looks like an arrowhead." Julia said.

"It is," Armistead explained. "Indians used to live around here; we call them river people."

"What happened to them? Were they relocated?"

"No, they died out before the settlers came. Mr. Wilson says their blood went bad."

"What does that mean?"

"Mr. Wilson -- our science teacher -- says the Indians took too much from the land and didn't give enough back. They forgot the balance of things and their blood went bad because of it. So when the white men came, there wasn't one left alive."

"What did they do? Overfarm? Hunt too much?"

Armistead shook his head, "It's more complicated than that."

Julia remained silent, hoping he would further delve into his explanation but the boy suddenly went quiet.

"There's something I want to show you," Armistead said. "It's just around the corner."

The boy led Julia to a small cliff, and etched on its face were ancient glyphs. He pointed towards a particular grouping and said, "See? They're dancing around the sun, happy but grateful too. They're showing the sun god their happiness and gratitude."

"I see that, and is that another celebration?"

"Yep, that's for the moon."

"Sounds like a party hardy kind of people." Julia dryly said. "No wonder they died out. With all that partying when did they find the time to forage for food?"

Armistead threw back his head and laughed, and Julia froze for a moment as she recognized the father within the son.

"That's funny," Armistead said, hiccupping to a stop. "Have to tell Mr. Wilson what you said."

"Oh, great, just go tattle-tale to the teacher about me. What a friend you turned out to be." Julia sat on a rock, studying the drawings with greater intensity than before. "Armistead, if the Indians who drew this died out before any settlers came into the valley -- how do people know what these drawings mean?"

"There were other Indian tribes who remembered and knew stories about the river people. And dad said some archeologists found similar paintings from other tribes."

"Could you explain about the bad blood thing? I'm really curious, especially since I'm a doctor."

Armistead took a deep breath before speaking. "It's like eating too much rich food or drinking too much beer. Too much of anything can kill you, even the good stuff."

Julia nodded, "I guess I'm hung up on the medical side of things. Did they die out of diabetes? Obesity? Weak heart?"

Armistead shrugged, "I don't know how they died, just why."

There was an uncomfortable lull in the conversation. Julia decided she had pushed the boy far enough.

"Let's go back and have some lunch. We can make a plate for your dad so you can bring it up to him."

Armistead smiled, "Dad's a real hogger. If he hears us in the kitchen he's going to come down."


Julia heard the heavy steps as soon as she closed the refrigerator door. Since the afternoon sun was fairly baking by the time she and Armistead returned to the house Julia decided against using the stove. Instead, she prepared cold sandwiches and a tossed salad. She caught Armistead smiling slyly as Marcus entered the kitchen.

"Hey," Marcus said sleepily, rubbing his eyes. "Lunchtime?"

"Yeah," Armistead answered and pushed a full plate towards his father. "This is for you. How's the cut?"

"Deep but Dr. Sandler here took care of it, so no big deal." Marcus said and took a large chug of juice right out of its carton.

"Nice," Julia said, smiling. "I see your manner's gone to the dogs."

"Give the man a break," Marcus drawled. "Didn't realize how hungry I was until I woke up."

"Dad, you're always hungry," Armistead said. "Mrs. Simon says you're a walking garbage disposal."

"That's funny considering how much potato salad Tessa put away at the last picnic. She was practically licking the bowl at the end."

The mention of the librarian's name wiped out any good mood Julia was having. Hardening her resolve she decided that once the sun sets, she was going to strike out again.

Marcus mistook the serious look on her face and said, "I was joking, Julia. Tessa's a dear woman and a good friend, which is why we tease each other all the time."

Julia rolled her eyes at Armistead and let Marcus believe his summation of the librarian was what was bothering her. "You, sir, are no gentleman."

"Damn right I'm not. Starving is what I am." Marcus said and took a large bite out of his sandwich. "This is good ... what did you put in? Onions?"

"Armistead did," Julia explained. "I skipped."

"I like onions," Armistead said.

"Which is probably why mosquitoes love you." Marcus said.

"Yeah, yeah, that's what you say but who got bitten more last time we went fishing?"

Marcus shrugged, "I didn't count, did you?"

"I sure did!" Armistead crowed. "You should've seen dad! He looked like the Elephant Man!"

"Armistead, not while we're eating, please!" Julia said, equally dismayed and amused. "And that's not nice!"

"To me or the Elephant Man?" Marcus asked, smiling through a mouthful of salad.

"I plead the fifth."

"What's that?" Armistead asked.

"It's what people say when they don't want to incriminate themselves, which means they're guilty as sin." Marcus explained. "What did you guys do while I was asleep?"

"We went to see the Indian glyphs on the cliff face."

"Armistead, you could've picked a cheerier place." Marcus sounded genuinely troubled. "And you know I don't like you going there."

"I know dad," Armistead said, "But it's so cool!"

"Yes, it's interesting. I'm not saying it isn't, but that's a creek bed which means once in a while we've got water running through it. And if there's flash flooding, you won't know about it until the water's way over your head. Do you understand what I'm saying, son?"

"Yes sir, I do." Armistead slowly, suddenly losing interest in his meal.

Marcus affectionately rubbed the boy's head, "How about after lunch you and I go fishing?"

Julia agreed, "Sounds good to me. Maybe you can catch some trout for dinner."

"Do you know how to clean fish?" Armistead asked, his troubles already forgotten.

"Nope, but I do know how to cook trout. Do you have a lemon and few bacon slices?"

"That we most certainly do have," Marcus said and turned to his son. "Sounds good?"

"Sounds great! Let me get my hat." Armistead said, grabbing a sandwich to eat while he prepared for the fishing expedition.

"No, you sit down and finish your lunch properly," Marcus said, grabbing the boy by his belt loop. "Especially since Julia went through all the trouble making it for us."

The two adults then had the treat of watching a boy turn into a Hoover as Armistead polished off his plate in less than three minutes. They both watched the child run off in amazement.

"Better bring some Tums or Rolaids," Julia said. "He's going to have a sizeable stomach discomfort."

"That's what coke cola is for," Marcus said, grabbing few bottles out of the fridge. "It's a tried-and-true remedy in this household."

Julia laughed and stood to clean up Armistead's plate.

"Listen, about earlier..." Marcus began.

Julia immediately interrupted him, "Don't worry about it. You were under a lot of stress, physically and emotionally."

"I was about to say the offer still stands, if you're interested."

Julia almost didn't meet his eyes but in the end she did. And once again she had the feeling of vertigo. It took her a few seconds to gather her thoughts.

"I have to think about it, Marcus. I'm not the kind of person who falls into relationships so easily, especially if there's a boy who could get hurt in the process."

"Of course, I understand." Marcus said and then placed a tender kiss on her forehead. "It's been a while since I was interested in anyone too. It's just that Armistead's taken to you and so have I."

They didn't discuss the subject any further as Armistead came banging down the stairs, loaded with fishing gear.

"You might pass out lugging all that in this heat," Marcus said. "Load up the car, let's take a drive today."

"Okay!" Armistead ran out the kitchen door, various equipment banging about his thin frame.

Julia couldn't help but smile at the comical sight. "Were you like that at his age?"

"Worse," Marcus said. "Man, I was so much worse. I was the biggest nerd in school and the shyest kid ever born this side of Mississippi. I also had a bad stutter; use to give people saliva baths. As you can imagine growing up like that was damn difficult. Armistead's already got female admirers. You should've seen his last Valentine's Day loot. Had more candy hearts than I did my entire life."

"But with those eyes?" Julia asked, "I can't imagine not one girl finding those eyes hypnotic."

Marcus smiled, "They might have if I ever raised my face from the goddamn floor. I use to crash into doors and walls because I refused to look up. There still trees around the school with my face imprinted on the trunk."

Julia closed her eyes and shook her head in laughing wonder. Marcus took advantage of the moment and embraced her, this time giving a kiss that was neither tender nor friendly.

"I meant what I said earlier," He whispered raggedly, "Just remember that."

Julia didn't have any chance to reply. Armistead honked the horn impatiently and Marcus took off before she could even begin to breathe properly.


Julia yawned and stared at her watch. It was nearly seven though with the amount of sunshine she could have easily mistaken the time for five. She stood up from the sofa, stretched and wondered if the air was cool enough for the hike. A noise attracted her attention and she peeked through the living room's bay window.

The rock that hurtled in missed her head but a large shard of glass did not. It neatly sliced open her forehead and Julia dove to the floor, partially blinded by the blood. She rolled to the balls of her feet as the front door smashed open. She looked up to see Tom's face, red with fury.

"Where is he?" Tom's breath was laden with alcohol. "Where's the man who killed my son?"

 

 

Conclusion

 "Your son?" Julia echoed dumbly, trying to wipe the blood out of her eyes. "Johnny is your son?"

Tom startled at the sound of her voice, focusing on her as if he just discovered her presence. Turning to her he said, "You got no right to question me, not when this is all your fault."

Julia warily stood up, mentally calculating her odds of escape. "I don't understand. I honestly don't."

"It was because of you Marcus decided to lock up Johnny! If you weren't around all Marcus would've done was to drive the boy back to the hills, but he couldn't risk it; not with his precious doctor walking around town, acting like she already owns it!"

"Why would Johnny be a threat to me?" Julia asked, no longer caring about her safety. She had to find out the truth, even if it meant risking her life.

"He was never right in his head, but that's not his fault. It's mine," Tom said tearfully. "I wasn't a proper father so the boy went wild. He never understood about the rules but that's because I never taught him properly. And when he ran away, what could I do? But he came back, my boy always came back in the end."

"Tom..."

"But now he's never going to come home. Never. If you were such a great doctor why couldn't you save him? Not that Tessa witch would've done anything; she already judged my son to be a lost cause so she wouldn't lift a finger, not even in the end when he was in so much pain. Rightful judgment she called it -- dried-up cow, hope she dies the same way Johnny did. Alone."

"I would've stopped it, you know that I would've at least tried."

Tom's face scrunched up, making him look like an abandoned and frightened child. "I know you would. I saw how kind you were to him and he told me you spoke to him like he was a real man. But this is all your fault and someone has to pay so the balance gets right again. Marcus took my son so I'm going to take his bride."

Tom raised his pistol and aimed it at her head, "I am sorry. I really am. But you can't stay here. Not now ‘cause it wouldn't be right. Not anymore."

Julia saw the hammer cock back and felt an odd sense of peace. She didn't know the whole story but now that she was facing her death, she could accept many things, even the impossible and the grotesque.

"Tom, you don't want to do that," A woman's voice came from the doorway.

Tom's head snapped towards the entrance. His drowned-pale face went even whiter. "Edith," He whispered, his gun arm slowly dropping. "I ... I'm sorry, I didn't..."

"I know, baby." The woman whispered, approaching cautiously. "I know but you can't do this, because if you do, you're going to break my heart. Then where will I be?"

Edith took the pistol away from her distraught husband. "Let's go home."

Tom allowed himself to be led away, not even bothering to look back at the maelstrom he wrought. Julia didn't allow herself to breathe loudly enough to be heard until she heard car doors slam. As if on cue, her legs buckled under and she felt to the floor. The sound of running feet made her look up. Marcus' face was white as he bent over her. Behind him Armistead stood, eyes wide with shock and shivering as if he were caught in the rain.

"Julia," Marcus said as he embraced her. "You have to..."

"Get off of me!" Julia screamed, back-peddling away from the frozen figure until her back slammed into a wall. "I've had enough. I'm going home, you hear me?! Screw this, screw this town and you and all your lies!"

Marcus' face flushed but his tone remained light, "Julia, please calm down."

"No, I don't know what game you're playing but you're not G-d and you can't stop me from leaving!"

Armistead made a noise like a wounded animal. Marcus turned to his son and saw the boy's distress. "Go to Tessa and stay there until I come for you, understand?"

Armistead nodded and ran out the door. Even though he didn't make a single noise both Marcus and Julia knew he was crying.

Marcus sighed and rubbed his face, "I guess I can't blame you. You're smart and you must have sensed things weren't right from the beginning."

"You think?" Julia snarled. "I knew you were lying but I was so hypnotized by you I was willing to eat whatever dish you put in front of me! But no more, I've had enough. And think twice before getting in my way."

Marcus' face suddenly shifted and his gaze turned into icy calm. "And where are you going to go? Back to your drunk father who uses his fists instead of words? Back to colleagues who talk about you behind your back because you had an affair with an attending? You do know that they believe the only reason you passed your residency is because you slept your way through it. Board scores notwithstanding."

Julia returned his stare. "Cameron Longstreet, you know him, don't you?"

"He did say you were problematic -- more stubborn than the rest of the herd, and that you have the distinct gift of relying on your instincts when others wouldn't. But that was what attracted me to you."

"Damn you and your lies," Julia said even as Marcus' words ensnared her heart and squeezed it to a stop. "What makes you think I want to listen?"

"Damn, G-ddamn, words people use all the time but I don't think they have any idea what it really means." Marcus stood up and began picking up glass shards. "I was a G-d fearing man once. Isn't that a strange thing to say? G-d fearing? When G-d is suppose to be all loving and merciful -- why fear then?

"It's a rhetorical question, if you didn't know." Marcus continued to clean while he spoke. "Since you're so keen on finding the truth, I'll tell you. I was born in Aaron, went North to get my degree and came back, hoping to do make something of myself and of the town. I sat out my Juris shingle where the bakery now stands. Business was good, didn't make me rich but I was made a comfortable man. I married my childhood love, Mariah, and we had a little girl with the sweetest eyes you've ever seen. We called her Annabella."

Marcus discarded the shards into a garbage pail, careful not to cut his hands. "And when the bugle call came to Aaron, I wasn't willing to fight at first. I didn't believe in slavery; thought it made people soft, lazy and mean. I was right but I couldn't ignore it for long so I went. Got my first bullet wound in Fredericksburg. Earned my second in Gettysburg; got mixed up with 15th Alabama somehow and nearly got my head blown off for it. The Yanks charged; I can still see them -- they had no ammo so they fixed bayonets and ran down that hill, screaming like hounds of Lucifer.

"I don't know what happened but we turned and ran, and I never did that before. I was ashamed as hell but at least I got out alive. Not many did."

Julia didn't say a word but her mind was screaming. He's insane. This entire town ... they've got the diseases. All of them. Was he the vector? The one who started all this madness? Do these people worship him? And take him at his word? This human-god?

"My luck didn't last long. I fell in Spotsylvania and ended up in Rock Island.  I think it's called Arsenal now. So many men didn't know what to do with the cold, especially the ones from Texas. Then there was small pox, and malaria and other things best left unsaid. But I held my tongue. I did my L-rd wrong; went against my gut instinct and failed so I deserved what I got.

"I was freed in June and went home. Crippled but alive and I still had all my limbs which made me sight luckier than most. I met Jebediah, Tom's older brother, in Missouri and we returned to Aaron, oh ... it felt like we were allowed into the Pearly Gates. Then the other survivors trickled in and soon we had Aaron back, most of it anyway.

"I thought I didn't have the small pox. The Union doctor told me I'd been exposed to it but somehow I was spared. Again I thought it was the good L-rd's doing. Watching over his prodigal son, then my Mariah got sick and soon after Annabella fell. It was the small pox. My family was wiped out in less than two weeks, but I was spared. I got to watch them die, I got to watch them bleed and bleed. And small pox wasn't the only thing -- malaria followed us back to our homes, to our beds, and we couldn't do anything but watch our wives and children, our mothers and fathers fall. And for what? What kind of G-d would do this?

"I'll tell you what kind of G-d, a sick, twisted puppeteer is what it is. We were digging one grave after another, and soon we had to start burning the bodies because we were afraid it would get worse. Our doctor died early on, brave soul that he was. He tried to save so many and died saving none.

"Tessa's mother was the one who reminded me of the river people. Alice heard about their gift; about their ability to cheat death so we gave her our blessings and off she went. She came back months later, heavy with Tessa and information. Alice told us what we had to do to stop this and we did it with smiles on our faces."

"It was you who burned down the church..."

"No, that was Perpetual. All we did was burn down ours with the pastor tied the pulpit. And it stopped. The dying just ... stopped."

"What have you done?" Julia asked, aghast not only with Marcus' story but with the conversational tone he used to tell it. "What gave you the right?"

"G-d gave us the right, remember? Free will: so we used it. We plucked him out of our lives and replaced him with something better. Something that understands what we really are. It's not like we're cheating death forever. We do die. Alice did, eventually. And Johnny -- who bounced between our place and yours -- he aged too, you saw him. We're made of flesh and blood, we just last longer. Time doesn't behave here the way it does out there. It's gentler here, kinder."

"That's not the truth. Living things die for a reason. Death is not a curse, Marcus. It's a privilege. I've seen people hooked up to machines to keep them alive but in reality, they were already gone and it's just sad, sad hope that keeps their bodies ticking. That's why there's silence in Aaron. Beasts obey that fundamental law so that's why they avoid this place. It is unnatural to have done what you set out to do. In fact, it is evil."

"So you say, but I think you'd sing a different tune if you were with us back then."

"And what about Johnny? Did he really hang himself or did you help him, Marcus? Gave him a little nudge off the chair, just to make sure the town embarrassment doesn't inconvenience you anymore?

"I'm a lawman, Julia. It was Johnny's choice."

"But you didn't stop him. If you knew him as long as you claim, then you must have known suicide was on his mind."

"It was Johnny's choice."

"And it's mine to go."

"You're right," Marcus said and straightened to his full height. "But you won't get far. Like I said before, around here time doesn't work in the way you think. Aaron's folks do go out on occasion, we have to. And once in a long while we sacrifice one of us, like Cameron, to live on the outside in order to tell us what's going on so we don't get totally off-tracked. But Julia, we need you. We need a doctor and I need you. I chose you a long time ago, before you finished medical school, and I've been biding my time since then. It wasn't difficult because I knew you'd be worth it.

"Go, see how far you can go before being turned back. Just remember not to panic and if you run into trouble -- you can always come back here. Outside trouble never could follow us home."

Julia didn't say a word. The implacability of Marcus' tone frightened her more than his madness. She dashed out the door and onto the hills, hoping even in the dark she would be able to find the rocks where she hid her backpack.

He's part of Aaron and it has become part of him. The snake consuming the tail -- that's what they are. That's who they are.


Armistead remained quiet for the first five minutes of the walk. But curiosity got the better of him. "Is she gone?"

Marcus draped a protective arm around the thin shoulders, "For now. Remember I told you she'd probably try to go back home?"

"I remember."

"And that we can't be mad at her for it?"

Armistead nodded, "What happens when she comes back?"

"We have to be patient. Julia's smart and stubborn -- not a good combination when they're antagonized. I think she'll try to bolt at least three times. Your mother still holds the all-time record of four."

Armistead shook his head, "People still talk about it, even Mr. Wilson."

Marcus shrugged. "I'm not surprised. Did you know the last time she was carrying Jessie?"

Armistead shook his head in surprise.

"I didn't tell you that story? Well, to begin with she didn't do it to be mean to me, Armistead. She loved the child she was carrying so she tried to ... I don't know, maybe save the child in her mind. All I know was that the day she took off we had the worst thunderstorm. And that was before we had battery-run flashlights. Trying to keep the lamp lit in that rain while hollering for her, I have to admit I was pretty pissed when I finally found her."

"Did she get hurt?"

"Not really, she had a sprained ankle, but she was soaked to the skin. And crying like a lost lamb. I couldn't stay mad at her; I never could. That was the last time she tried. And, after a while, she really grew to love Aaron. It took her few years but people here grow on you."

"What about Julia? Will she be okay out there?"

"Well there aren't any wolves or bears around here, if that's what you mean. And she's smart. She hid a bag earlier; Tessa told me about it. So while you two were out, I hid few bottles of water, a compass and a walkie-talkie in case she got into any major trouble."

Armistead grinned, "Man, she's sneaky."

Marcus nodded sagely, "That she is. But remember you must treat her with respect when she comes back. She's going to be your new mom so I don't want any backhanded talk from you, understand?"

Armistead nodded, "You think I'll find a wife like her?"

"I guarantee it. Do you still want trout for dinner?"

"Please, I'm starving."

 

The End

 

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