I had no idea how long he had been standing there in the dark at the end of my hospital bed, almost like a whisper. Had I not seen the streetlight glimmer off his wings, I would have scarcely thought him real.
The room was silent, save for the harmonic beeping of
the monitor tethering me to this world, letting the overnight staff know that I was still alive and kicking even if it was only for a few more hours.
Had a more devout person been in my place, they would have faced the shock of a lifetime. This man did not stand before me dressed in white and beautiful enough to make one weep.
He looked human, haunted even.
His five-o-clock shadow furthered his disheveled appearance; his chestnut hair was tousled slightly. Short and unkempt, it hid his face from view.
Minutes passed before either of us finally said something. My haggard voice broke the near silence. “I—I don’t know who you are, but if you don’t leave, I’ll call the nurses’ desk.”
“Somehow I highly doubt that.” He didn’t even glance in my direction but merely reached to the plastic cup on the rollaway cart and poured a glass of water, holding it out for me in the process.
I reached cautiously for the water, and the man took notice of the IVs taped to my hands and arms. “Why are you in my room?”
My gaze never left his darkened face. His tangled web of hair hid his eyes from sight. A rush of sound, like flapping in the darkness, diverted my attention just long enough for something to glisten in my peripheral.
With any luck, his wings were nothing more than a morphine-induced hallucination.
“I didn’t poison it, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“What?” I blinked.
My palms began to itch, and I looked down, remembering the cup was still in my hands. I took a quick sip before setting it next to the phone on the nightstand. “Thanks, I guess. So are you going to tell me what you’re doing in a stranger’s room at two in the morning?”
He snorted or maybe laughed; I couldn’t tell without seeing his face.
Voices lied. Words lied. Only eyes told the truth.
“We’re not strangers,” the man said as he sat down on the corner of my bed.
I felt something brush my cheek in the darkness, and I almost jumped out of my skin. “You had me fooled.”
“That’s where you’d be wrong.” He smiled briefly.
“Listen, buddy. I’ve never seen you a day in—”
That same rush of sound echoed in the room, and the man who had been avoiding my gaze was now inches from me. Suddenly his breath burned my face, belying my thoughts and emotions.
It was raw, pure, and hovered in my direction.
His eyes struck me like peridots lost in an ocean of blue, with an intensity blazing in them that I knew better than to question. For a moment, I was scared he would hurt me, and he must have noticed the look on my face because he backed up instantly.
I couldn’t bear to look at those eyes again. “So this is a normal thing?” I asked as I fingered the holes in the crocheted blanket keeping my legs warm. “You coming to the hospital to visit people?”
“No,” he said quietly. “Just you.”
I mustered a smile even though a voice in the back of my head screamed in warning. He could have been a serial killer, a pervert, or a deranged psychotic that snuck into hospital rooms at night to scare the damned and dying.
The same disturbed look I had on my face now crossed his.
Could he have heard me? I had no idea, but I was sure I didn’t want to find out.
Luck, it would seem, did not fancy my cares. “Amelia, please,” he whispered in the dark. “Stop this foolishness. You know better than to think that of me. I would never hurt you. Never.”
The pain in his beautiful eyes nearly choked me. I had no recollection of the stranger before me, but obviously that meant little to him.
“What do you want?” I took another sip from the cup.
“What?” This time I choked for an entirely different reason.
“You asked me what I wanted,” he said simply, as if the words required no forethought. “I want you.”
I fidgeted even more as I struggled to regain some control over the madness unfolding around me. My hands dug into the blanket and pillow as I forced myself upright to stare this man in the eye. I said nothing, knowing anything I would say was futile.
Instead, I did the most unnatural thing to me. I listened.
“You’re dying, Amelia, and there’s nothing I can do to stop what happens after that, but for now I can give you a choice. Right here, right now. I can’t stop your death, but I can slow it down. Maybe not long enough for grandchildren but time to do what you want, go where you want. Time to be happy. Time to live.”
I finally mustered the courage to speak. “And in what capacity am I supposed—”
“When the time comes, Mia, you will follow me unquestioningly. You will be mine and I, yours. Together, forever, at last.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Because you asked me to.”
I could only blink. The man stared at me with such longing that I felt ashamed beneath his gaze, as if he’d just caught me with my hand in the cookie jar. He reached for me one final time, extending a gentle hand to my thigh. I couldn’t deny the rush I felt, nearly choking me with desire. A burning fire whipped down his body and into mine, leaving my breath caught in the back of my throat.
Our eyes locked, and it was evident we both knew the effect his touch had on me. My body knew him even when my mind didn’t.
“Say you’ll come with me, Amelia, please,” he begged. “I can’t bear this much longer without you.”
“Bear what?” My voice struggled to get out.
The room was suddenly stifling. Suffocating even. I began to fidget even more.
And then came an answer I wasn’t expecting.
Orderlies bustled about the hallways. The RN came in every few hours to jot down notes on a brown clipboard, a foreign language scrawled for the entertainment of the doctor. All seemingly innocuous activities that daily life at a hospital begot.
Just as I was coming around for what felt like the thousandth time, the brunette nurse must have noticed my movements because she scurried out of the room like the hounds of Hell were chasing after her.
I closed my eyes long enough for those seafoam-colored irises to haunt me once more until the sound of Dr. Willard’s voice broke my reverie.
His salt and pepper gray hair did little to mask the alarm on his face. I expected the worst.
“I have to tell you, Amelia,” his Case Western-educated voice began, vying for my attention. “When Stacy told me about these readings, I thought she was mad, but she insisted that I come see for myself. While you were unconscious, we ran three panels, two biopsies, and a CT scan.” He patted my hand with a triumphant smile. “There’s no cancer anywhere in your body.”
I blinked. What?
He must have noticed my reaction because he slipped past me to the view-box on the wall, placed the scan in his hand on it, and flipped the switch. “See for yourself.”
I inched over onto my side, taking great care to brace myself for the pain that didn’t come.
Maybe he was right.
I didn’t know which terrified me more: the idea of my cancer actually being gone or the truth behind how it happened. What should have been a cathartic experience instead left me frightened as I glanced at the images again and again.
He was right.
Not a speck. Not a mar on the screen.
I was healed. Yesterday I was dying. Weak and frail, my veins were flooded with poison in hopes of keeping me alive a little longer yet. Thrown into a whirlwind of beeping monitors and bright lights, time had lost its meaning in a way I had not expected.
I had expected panic, terror even. I had expected something. Anything.
But not this. Instead I felt numb, hollow.
I felt the chemicals eating away at my energy, eating away at my soul.
My mother didn’t even know I was here. Or that I was dying. She and my stepfather were away on business for three months in Washington D.C. I had left her two messages but hadn’t heard anything back. Her phone had been off both times.
I was alone in this. Alone save for the strange man who visited me in my dreams. It was becoming quite apparent that my brain’s way of coping might have actually been something else entirely. Maybe I did have a guardian angel watching over me—watching in ways I didn’t even want to know about.
“As long as nothing changes, we’re going to release you the morning after tomorrow.” Dr. Willard’s voice broke my train of thought yet again.
“We’re releasing you back to your life,” he said amicably. “Now, we are going to want to set up a follow-up appointment with the oncology ward to be on the safe side, but as far as we can tell, it’s as if you were never sick to begin with. Call it a miracle if you want.”
My disbelief reared its ugly head. “A miracle?”
Dr. Willard unclicked his ballpoint pen and stuffed it back in the chest pocket of his lab coat. “Well, someone’s looking out for you then. Remember to send them a nice Christmas present.”
For a moment I was a tongue-tied, my defenses caught with their pants down. Appreciation had never been one of my strong suits.
“Take care out there.” He smiled at me, and for a moment, I didn’t feel the wolf at my door anymore. With a gentle, reassuring pat on my shoulder, he was gone, back out of my life. I was alone in the stark white room once more.
I stared at the monitors beeping harmonically at my side for several minutes before I finally pulled the tape off my skin and the IVs along with it. I ran my hands along my arms, checking for any foreign objects still tethering me to this place, finding nothing. My fingertips grazed the patch of hair missing from the side of my scalp where they had shaved away my humanity.
Just a strip at first. They didn’t know whether more would be necessary if the surgery didn’t work. But my hair was gone; my scars real. With that reality, so too came my truth: I was healthy.
I glanced through the double-paned windows at the encroaching storm. The skies had turned a muted gray as the winter weather fast approached the city. The streets were all but deserted save for the large dump trucks launching salt into the blackness. Like a moth cocooning itself for a long slumber, the darkness blanketing the firmament soon covered everything in sight.
Before too long, it would be pitch black and freezing cold, with ice laying waste to the pavement and grass, trapping us like birds in a cage.
I threw a shawl around my shoulders and pulled on my pair of slippers with the little piggies on top. Taking care not to draw the attention of the women at the nurses’ station, I disappeared down the emergency stairwell.
By the time they realized I was gone, it wouldn’t even matter.
I had no intention of ever coming back.
Spring had settled into Middleton, the town I had chosen to start my new life.
Two thousand two hundred fourteen miles away from my hometown, I was as free as I could get without leaving the country entirely. The Pacific coast now crested the cliffs encompassing my new home, bringing a never-ending ocean smell to my nostrils, reminding me of the fresh life I had chosen.
The cabbie started to help unload the lone duffel bag I had brought with me but stopped when he noticed I had already slung it over my shoulder.
My dark auburn hair, once long and flowing, now bordered my face and shoulders. It only accentuated my small features, delicate, as my mother would call them, like some dainty flower dancing in the wind. I had never been that person, that image my mother had of me. My rash decision to chop off my hair did little to dissuade my prognosis. I was my own person, my own entity, and I had realized this long before my self-proclaimed exile.
After slamming the trunk shut on the cab, I passed the guy a twenty. It had been a ten-minute drive from the airport, but he had done it in silence without trying his best to get to know me.
I hoped the entire town was the same way.
I hadn’t come to Middleton to make friends; I had come to disappear.
The driveway snaked its way up toward the rental house at the top of the cliff above William’s Ferry. I followed the pavement slowly, taking notice of the azaleas and hydrangea bushes along the trailing landscape. The lack of care for the property conveyed that it had sat abandoned for months, if not years. The overgrown weeds and ivy covering the verandas and stone pathways leading to the front door soothed me.
No one would come looking for me in a place forgotten by the rest of the world. It was perfect.
I reached the stained glass door, its off-blue color mimicking the ocean a few hundred yards below, and slipped the key into the lock. I was in the house in less than a second, dropping my duffel bag on the entrance rug at my feet.
For having been deserted for so long, the inside of the house was in far better condition than the outside alluded. A large oak table sat in the center of the foyer, serving as a makeshift dividing point to the rest of the house. To the right, a sitting room decorated to my grandmother’s taste, and to the left, a dining room complete with ornate china on display in a cabinet. Hell, there was enough china and flatware tucked away in the curio that I could host the entire town council given the opportunity.
Beyond the foyer, a wooden stairwell led to the bedroom upstairs while the kitchen sat even farther toward the back of the house. The old floors creaked as I familiarized myself with the place, moaning their disdain at having new company.
I slipped through the sliding glass door and stepped out onto the small concrete slab that served as a patio to the backyard where a small fence protected the drunk and careless from plummeting to their deaths. Scouring the overgrown yard for any sign of the previous renters, I found a swing set with enough rust holding it together that I could sit down on its plastic seat without fear of the chains snapping beneath my weight. I closed my eyes and leaned against them, digging my heels into the sand.
Two thousand miles away and I was still haunted by the sudden spiral of events that had taken hold of my life last Christmas.
Not long ago I was studying for the Bar exam in Massachusetts though my heart had never been in it. Now I sat here a different person, one that had been torn apart and spliced back together, left to the wolves gnawing at my soul. The life I had didn’t seem like my own. It felt like some far off dream, more surreal than the one I had experienced in the hospital.
I would never be the same person again. I didn’t even want to be.
I don’t know how long I remained there, my thoughts lost in the whirlwind, but by the time I finally realized it, dusk had already come and gone.
The owners of the property had left the place fully furnished. Once I lit the table lamps, the place was awash in manufactured light. On either side of a fireplace which I doubted I’d ever use, was a wall of shelving encased in books, something of a security blanket for a bibliophile like me. My eyes scoured the shelves for anything of interest, the well cared-for tomes a testament to the meticulousness of the caretakers.
Eventually, I spotted something that shouldn’t have been there.
My name, clear as day, on the spine of one of the novels.
The likelihood of it having anything to do with me was nil, but my paranoia was unending and undeniable, like some caged beast snapping at the darkness.
Just as my fingertips grazed the cover, I felt something tug me backward, yanking my awareness away, and suddenly the caged beast didn’t seem so crazy anymore.
The first thing I realized upon waking was the fact that the rental house no longer surrounded me, but instead I stood in a wide expanse of white, the four corners of the room indistinguishable. Almost blinding.
My vision struggled to focus through the pounding in the back of my head. My hands jumped to my arms and legs instinctively checking to make sure that, wherever I was, I had reached it in one piece.
“Did I startle you?” A warm, masculine voice sounded from behind me, forcing me to turn around.
It was him, the man from my dream or, more aptly, my nightmare.
He took a step toward me; I took a concurrent step back. “Who are you?” I demanded.
Sorrow overcame his handsome features. His haunted blue-green eyes disappeared beneath his wavy mane of hair. “You really don’t remember me, do you?” The innocence in his voice belied his haggard appearance.
Though I somehow felt sorry for the man, it didn’t change the fact that we were somewhere I couldn’t explain. For some reason, I expected the room to dissolve around us and bring us back to reality, but instead my prison remained.
“My name is Adam,” he said simply, never once taking his eyes off me.
“OK, Adam . . .” I cleared my throat and waited. It was quite apparent that I had no control of my surroundings. No hallucinogens in the world would induce me to have a conversation with a winged man who only visited me in my nightmares. “What do you want?”
He thrust his hand into his pants pockets, once again staring down at his feet, though I couldn’t see them in this white. “I came to make sure you were okay.”
Had he been real and not a figment of my imagination, perhaps I would have been attracted to him. Any woman would be. He had an innocent sensuality to his rugged frame.
I caught him staring at me in my peripheral vision as I walked about the room, searching for any sign of an exit.
“There isn’t one.”
Once again I felt my insides rear up like a cat hissing in defense. How did he know what I was thinking? Was it that obvious, or could he hear my thoughts?
The thought of that was more than I could bear. There was no such thing as a mind reader.
“That’s where you’re wrong, Mia.” He laughed. “But out of respect for you, I won’t do it again if it makes you uncomfortable.”
“Uncomfortable?” I barked. “That doesn’t even scratch the surface. Why don’t you stop playing games and tell me what you want.”
“I already have,” he said as he sat down on a wooden bench that hadn’t been there moments ago.
“Yeah, yeah. Me.” I rolled my eyes. “Like I’m supposed to believe that.”
He shook his head. “You’re alive, aren’t you? Disbelief will get you nowhere, Mia. You never used to be like this. This whole ordeal has changed you, so much that you don’t even believe what’s right in front of you.”
I ran my tongue over my teeth, taking a breath to keep from screaming. “I’ve had enough of this, Adam, if that’s even your real name. I don’t know you—I don’t want to know you. I want to wake up from this reoccurring nightmare and be left in peace.”
“You don’t really mean that, do you, Mia?” For a second I thought I saw his eyes glisten.
Oh, this was getting ridiculous. I was sick of this crap. “Call me that again, and I will make you regret it.”
“Have it your way then,” he said, almost quiet enough that I had to lean in to hear him, and then he was gone as if he had never been there in the first place.
I blinked and found myself back in the den, my hand still touching the burgundy hardback. Instead of my name etched down the spine, it said America with the same ambiguous author’s name scrawled in gold inlay.
My breath felt ragged in my chest as I backed away from the shelf as if it were poisonous.
I spun around for anything else out of the ordinary but found nothing. Although, truthfully, I would not have known what to look for in this place. The reassurance, as insane as it was, gave me peace. Peace that would be short-lived as I made my way past the chaise toward the stairwell.
Sitting calmly on the ornate rug beneath the chaise was a feather, black and iridescent, glistening as if it weren’t really there, but I knew better. I bent down to pick it up, to feel it flex beneath my fingertips.
I would have liked to say I passed out again, but this time I wasn’t bestowed with such luck.
Alone in a house over two thousand miles from home, I was losing my damned mind.
Reality, it seemed, had forsaken me.