Janie wrapped her arms around herself “brrrrr, I’m freezing”.
Paul looked over at her “babe…it’s 92 degrees out. What are you talking about?”
But just like that it was over and Janie was once again perspiring. “I don’t get it either. I mean, I was roasting and then I got chilled for like 10 seconds and now I’m hot again.”
“Cold flashes?” Paul teased.
“Very funny. You see me laughing?” But Janie was laughing despite herself. It was hard to be mad at Paul…he had a perpetual mischievous grin and with his wavy blonde hair and a single prominent dimple he was extraordinarily handsome. Not that she was a slouch herself: she had long brunette hair and had been a high jumper in college with the long lean body that went along with that. Once she fixed a man with her bright blue eyes he was a goner. In short, they looked like two people that belonged together; both having won the lottery when they were born and then hitting it again when they found each other.
“I just hope I’m not getting sick. I have to leave for Florida in two days!”
Paul snorted, “Oh yeah. For your ‘girls last fling’. I can only imagine. Meanwhile I get to stay here with your psycho mother while she freaks out about the wedding.”
“Please don’t call her “psycho” Paul, you know she has been through a lot and all mothers get nervous about weddings. Besides, she loves you to death and you know it.”
“Yeah ‘to death’ being the key phrase.”
“Now just cut it out” she admonished. “You two will have a fine old time together. Meanwhile lets get home. It’s hot as hell out here now.”
When they got back to Janie’s place she took her temperature just to make sure. It was fine so she wrote the whole thing off to a freak occurrence. Maybe Paul was right. Ha! Nervous cold flashes about the wedding. About one thing Paul was definitely right: her mother did not care for him. She could never say why, only that he reminded her of someone and gave her a creepy vibe. But even she admitted it was probably just jealously about losing her only child to marriage. To her credit she had never said anything to Paul and did her best to love him, perhaps even overcompensating a little.
The next morning Janie was up early and went out for her morning walk. She was back out on the trail and there it was again, and just like before it came and went in a few seconds. She looked around; nowhere near where it had happened yesterday. Was she going nuts? Why here, on this converted rail trail? When she got home she took her temperature again but decided against telling Paul. He might insist on her going to the doctor and she didn’t have time. Besides, what if he tried to make her miss her trip?
The trip to Florida with the girls came and went. It had been a fantastic success even if they did get thrown out of a couple bars. Hell, you’re only young once. The plane ride back had been quiet because they were all sleeping off the prior night’s festivities. And she’d forgotten all about the cold spells on the trail.
She decided to go for a long walk when she got home to shake the rest of the cobwebs out of her head. Paul was still at work so she decided to take the afternoon to recharge a bit and maybe stop and relax at one of the town center cafes. Everything was fine until she got near the old depot and suddenly the cold came over her. Except this time it didn’t go away. What the hell? Now, to be honest, she was getting a little worried. Maybe it was her nerves. In any case she was freezing and decided to turn around and head for home. She was about 100 yards from the depot when all of a sudden she was hot again….just like that. Well at least it wasn’t permanent. Then on a hunch she did a 180 and headed back towards the station and boom! Just like that she was cold again….another 180, walked a few yards away from the station and yep…hot again.
She was standing there scratching her head when she saw a familiar face walking towards her from the direction of the depot. “Lucinda!”
Lucinda walked over towards her “Hi sweetie! It’s been awhile.”
Janie tried to be polite and they exchanged pleasantries but then she burst out “Is it cold near the depot? I mean did you just walk through a cold spot?”
“Whatever could you mean? It’s crazy hot out here today.”
Janie replayed the whole story for Lucinda, they had retired to a trailside café and despite the past days activities Janie was having a cocktail. Lucinda offered the opinion that perhaps Paul was right and it was a case of the nerves. She recommended a therapist for which Janie thanked her and they parted ways. Lucinda was always trying to fix things and while she was kind, sometimes it was a little much. At this point she just wanted to be home before Paul got there so she could make a surprise dinner.
Dinner was nice, Paul had an exciting day at work and so he was in a good mood and he really made her feel good about her cooking and listened with genuine interest to her tales of their Florida bacchanal. She brought up the subject of the cold while they were laying in bed. Paul reiterated that she was just nervous and asked “what would it hurt to talk to someone about it? Worst case scenario you get some good drugs.”
“Do you really picture me talking to some head doctor?”
Paul laughed “No, you’d probably eat her alive, but it was worth a try.”
She felt that Paul supported her decision which should have made it easy to fall asleep. Instead she lay awake wondering what was happening to her. She really didn’t think it was in her head and she wasn’t opposed to seeing a therapist…she just didn’t think she was imagining it.
She slept late the next morning and her curiosity propelled her out the door and onto the trail. It was Saturday so she had all the time in the world. She walked everywhere she had experienced the cold and today felt nothing. So she put it aside. She mentioned it to Paul only so that he would get off her back about seeing a shrink. Besides, it was nearly time for the wedding and there were so many things to think about, she quite frankly forgot about it. But Paul didn’t.
Monday of the wedding week they were at a dinner thrown by some of his work colleagues and with the wine flowing fast and free he mentioned it to some of them. Janie kicked him under the table hard and he realized his mistake but it was too late…it was one of those dinners where everyone is hoping they wouldn’t run out of things to talk about with their immediate table mates. Janie’s story was like fresh meat and they all tore into it.
No one was unkind, nothing like that, just speculation as to what it might be. There were all the usual things, a fever, a nearby creek, etc. No one had the poor taste to mention it might be in her head though. She relaxed a bit and decided she liked this group of people. As she was laughing, in spite of herself at their half drunken speculation she noticed a waiter hanging close, listening in. It was an older gentleman, one of the types that looked like he might have been doing this forever and was proud of it. Everything about him was immaculate down to his perfectly trimmed gray moustache. She smiled at him “you too? Go ahead and tease me, everyone else is!”. She was actually hoping he would; he reminder her of her late father. He did not disappoint. But neither did he tease her.
“Miss, if you don’t mind me saying so, you’re not the first one to complain of cold spells on that trail.”
She stated at him…”What do you mean? Is this common? Is there something strange about this trail? Why me?”
He replied gently, “No, it’s not common and yes there is something strange about this trail. As to ‘why you?’ Here.” He pulled a pen out of his shirt pocket and made a note on the little tablet he used to remember orders. “This is an old map store on South Main street. The owner is a woman by the name of ‘Lively’. I think you should go see her and repeat what you said here tonight.”
She took the note and slipped it into her purse and assured him she would call there the very next day. “Thank you.” She actually had no intention of seeing this woman, the waiter was a sweet old guy but sounded a bit like a crack pot himself. Besides, she had not felt it in awhile and so was inclined to let sleeping dogs lie. She wasn’t even thinking about it when she went out the next day for a jog along the trail. There was a rehearsal to worry about in a few days and even more stressful, the rehearsal dinner. She was nearly done running, when anyone that had been around to observe her, and there were a few, would have seen her take off like a woman possessed. Paul had taken the day off work but was out running errands, thank goodness. She tore through a pile of clothes until she came up with the note the waiter had given her the night before. She ran back out on the trail and towards the store on South Main Street.
She had passed by the little map shop a thousand times but hardly noticed it. It was sandwiched between a storefront insurance agency and an antique mall. It was easy to overlook on the outside but the inside was another story. She opened the door and a little bell tinkled. From the the back room came a gentle lilting voice “I’ll be right there.” She looked around; the walls were covered floor to ceiling with bookshelves filled with rolled up maps and what looked like atlases. There were other books, some overstuffed chairs with doilies like her grandmother used to have and a lot of used tea cups scattered around. A laconic dog lay under a table, lifting it’s head to look at her. Satisfied that she had no food, it resumed whatever dog dream it had been having.
The old woman came in into the front room “ah…you must be Janie.”
Janie looked at her…”How did you know that?”
“It is written in the wind.”
Janie looked shaken, “oh my god really?”
“No, not really. My waiter friend said a pretty young lady might be coming to see me today.” Mrs. Lively grinned, clearly amused with her own joke.
Janie burst out laughing…she liked Mrs. Lively already. “Did he tell you…?”
“Yes,” replied Mrs. Lively. “And I have what you need right here.” She had already pulled a book down off the shelf and she motioned for Janie to come sit on the settee next to her. “This is an old map of the railroad that used to occupy this trail. It started service in 1871 and kept it up all the way until 1974.”
Janie took a look at the map and the towns that the railroad passed through, including their own town. “This a really cool map…look at all these things that used to be right around here. But what does this have to do with me getting cold?”
The old woman nodded…anticipating the question. She pulled out an old yellowed news paper protected in plastic. “This was a very safe operation, this old railroad. But there are always incidents.” She handed the newspaper over to Janie. There is a story of a train wreck on the front page. Seventy-one people died on a rainy night in 1955. They think it was sabotage, but it was never proven.”
“That’s horrible,” said Janie, “Why would anyone do that?”
“Why does anyone do these types of things?” The woman sighed, “anger, greed, lust, envy. The story was it was a jealous lover. His ex-fiancé’ was on the train. He worked for the railroad and had keys so he threw an old switch that was never open. The train switched over at speed and piled into a stack of logs. Most of the cars fell into the river: all of the dead people drowned, trapped inside the coaches.”
“But what does this have to do with me? Wait, Walter said this had happened before.”
“It has. And that is why I can tell you, that someone important to you died in that train wreck.”
Janie looked at her and shook her head. “I don’t know anyone that died in a train wreck. And that was way before I was born…even before my mother was born. But if I had an ancestor or someone aboard I would have heard about it.”
“Would you?” The old woman said this as if she knew something.
“What are you trying to say?”
“I’m saying that the only other time I’ve heard of someone getting cold like this they had someone on that train.”
“Okay…I have to tell you that sounds weird but I’ll ask my mom,” Janie said “but I’m curious about something…why did I feel this at different places on the trail and why was it for so long when I was downtown?”
Janie laughed “don’t worry about it…I can be slow. But why did the cold last so long downtown?”
“You were by the depot. So was the train…”
“…and it was stopped!” Janie exclaimed. “Oh my god” she said quietly and gave out a low whistle.
The old woman put her arm around Janie, “go talk to your mom. I’m betting you’ll be surprised.”
Janie was back the next day: “My aunt died on that train.”
“I knew you’d be back. Did you get any details?”
“It was strange, my mother didn’t want to talk about it. I was lucky to get that out of her.”
“Let’s take a walk to the library.”
They’d been in the library for three hours and still hadn’t found any record of her aunt being on the train. There were photos in the old papers of many of the deceased passengers but not all, and no one with her aunts name was on any of the newspaper lists. But then Janie thought of something and texted her mother.
“What’s wrong?” asked Mrs. Lively. Despite her enthusiasm, she was beginning to fatigue and it showed in her voice.
Janie already had an answer: “my aunt’s last name was different!”
Suddenly the fatigue was gone and they went back into the old newspapers and hit on a gold mine, and something they were not expecting: her aunt was the ex-fiancé that had triggered the jealous rage. There were pictures of her with her friends, pictures of her at her high school prom, even pictures of her in bathing suits meant to boost circulation. And of course, there was a picture, that appeared in every story, of her with her supposedly murderous ex. There was something else that Janie noticed, something about the jilted lover. It had to be a coincidence and she would not let herself contemplate any other explanation. She was shaking her head; “Okay the cold I feel has something to do with my aunt being on that train…but why and and what does it mean? Not that I’m saying I really believe all this.” The truth was, though, that she was much closer to believing it than not.
Mrs. Lively was silent for a long time, she was trying to figure out that best way to say something: “Your aunt is trying to warn you about something. What exactly, we have no idea. But you must be alert to any signs. Don’t alter your routine…that’s important. And you must go where she can communicate with you…and that is along the trail”
“Communicate? How? It’s not like she can hop off the train and have a chat.”
“No, but she will do something you will notice. It might be subtle, maybe not. Either way keep on the lookout. I am very tired dear. Will you walk me home? And I suggest you get some sleep as well. Have a little nip of something…it almost always helps me sleep. When that doesn’t work I have a big nip of something,”
One thing for sure about the old woman, she wasn’t boring. “Sure, lets go and I am sorry for keeping you at it so long.”
“Oh, I enjoyed this immensely! It is just that this old body can only handle so much excitement in one day. You just keep alert.”
Janie had a drink when she got home, not that she needed anyone to tell her that. She had stayed calm for Mrs. Lively but the truth was her nerves were raw. One of the pictures in the paper continued to haunt her and she continued to try and ignore what was obvious. Finally, she got up and just read a book.
When dawn broke she wanted to go out on the trail but Mrs. Lively had told her not to alter her routine, and her routine this week was finishing the prep for the wedding on Saturday and the rehearsal and dinner tomorrow night. She had last minute dinner reservations to adjust; her idiot future sister-in-law had chosen this week to decide she was vegan so that was another adjustment to be made…annoying or not she couldn’t let her eat some thrown together salad. By the time she had finished with all the last minute details and a few errands the day had flown by and it was time for her walk. And time for the afternoon train…well the ghost train at least. Ghost train! She must be losing her mind. If she told Paul he’d probably run like hell before it was too late.
It was actually a little later than normal when she got out for her walk, and when she felt the ice cold of the train she was far from the depot. The train must have been running late as well. It was still speeding along so the cold sensation was gone in a few seconds. But still she had felt it. She walked with her head on a swivel and saw nothing. She listened and couldn’t hear anything unusual. She had stayed out later than normal and was way past the station before she gave up and started heading back towards home.
She got distracted for a few minutes when she ran into a couple of old high school frenemies whom she invited to the wedding hoping they would decline, which they did with regrets. The niceties observed they took some selfies together and parted ways. She completely forgot about looking for any signs and was going through the selfies deciding which one to post on Facebook. She was checking out Estelle’s hair…it was as blonde as always. In school everyone was positive she bleached it…maybe not. Either way Estelle was a pretty woman and not a bad sort. She was cropping the picture before uploading when something over Estelle’s shoulder caught her eye. On one of the old telegraph poles that stood decaying in the overgrowth she could make out some writing…she zoomed in on it and applied a filter. It popped out: “WILL”. What the hell…?
Janie started walking faster toward home, looking for the next pole. There it was…writing in the same style: “HE”. That was it…a message on the poles for sure. “WILL HE” But will he what? She ran to the next pole. Nothing. Maybe it skipped for some reason but the next pole was blank as well. Dammit. All she had was “WILL HE”. She was walking towards home trying to figure out the rest. The map store was closed by now so she would wait until morning and go talk to Mrs. Lively. It would be a busy day with the rehearsal and dinner but she had to know.
She was almost back to the side trail that would lead her home when it hit her: Idiot! She ran back towards the poles and saw “HE”, then “WILL” and then on the next pole: “KILL”. She was breathing fast and afraid she would pass out. It was getting dark and fortunately the few people she passed probably couldn’t see the fear on her face. As she ran towards the next pole the terror rose in her because she already knew what the next word would be. There it was: “YOU”. She didn’t need to go on. She knew that was the end of the message but she checked anyway. Nothing “HE WILL KILL YOU”. She found a bench alongside the trail and sat and cried. She didn’t need anyone to tell her who “HE” was. But was she going to break up with Paul over a supposed message from a ghost? She processed every scenario she could think of. Her mother didn’t like Paul.. had she set him up? Or maybe meeting Estelle and her suggesting a selfie right in front of that pole was not coincidence. No. She was clutching at straws….she felt it deep down in her soul. She was trying to think of what she was going to say to Paul. She would say she was nervous and had to postpone it. That would soften the blow until she could think of something else. Plus it would give her the chance to see how he would react.
Paul was waiting for her when she got home “lets go grab some dinner and drinks. At this point, if it ain’t done it’s not going to get done.”
Janie decided not to mention the ghost train or the cold. “I think we should wait Paul.”
Paul shrugged, “sure, we can eat later, I just thought you might need…”
She cut him off “I mean wait to get married.”
“Why…what? What the hell?”
“It’s not you,” she lied, “It’s me. Let’s just give it some time. It’s going to be a hassle to postpone everything I know but…”
“Come on Janie, we know you’ve been stressed out. Let’s just relax and watch a movie for awhile. You’ll get some rest overnight and….”
Janie cut him off. “No, I’ve made up my mind…we have to postpone things while I think things through. And please stop talking like I’m crazy or something.” Janie thought she knew Paul and thought he might cry or plead or maybe even storm out. It would be hard to blame him. She didn’t expect what came next.
“You stupid bitch!!!” He swung and connected with the side of her head knocking her against the wall. She slid down onto the floor stunned. He came at her again intending to kick her in the stomach but she squirmed away and it landed on her thigh…it still hurt. “I’ll be fucking humiliated. My whole family will be humiliated.” Afraid that he would hit her again she started screaming at the top of her lungs. In a few seconds there were footsteps coming down the stairs and that was enough for Paul to run out of the apartment, but not before he’d managed to knock over her TV and laptop.
After a visit from one of Janie’s cousins, Paul made himself scarce. Janie moved in with her mother for awhile and became fast friends with Mrs. Lively. The memory of that day, the ghost train and Paul eventually faded to the background. She moved out, got back on her feet and married a man who wasn’t a psycho. Her daughter, Wendy, was two years old and at any rate kept her mind fully occupied along with running her own business. It was a Saturday afternoon and her husband was out doing some kind of guy stuff with his friends and she had just put Wendy down for a nap.
She picked up her iPad to catch up on social media. A couple of her friends were talking about something awful but the thread was so deep she couldn’t make out what they were going on about. She messaged her best friend, Haley; “what’s going on?”
Haley came back instantly “you haven’t heard?”
She sighed, this was just like Haley…being dramatic “No Haley, I just got 2 minutes to myself finally…can you just cut to the chase.”
“I’m sending you a link…it’s too awful.”
Oh for god’s sake she thought…then she clicked on the link and gasped; There was a picture of Estelle, the pretty blonde she’d taken selfies with on the trail. She’d been murdered and the suspect was her husband. Poor Estelle! They weren’t close but she seemed like a sweetheart. She regretted not getting to know her better and started tearing up as she scrolled through the story.
Haley texted back “I’m coming over.”
“Don’t be silly, you’re getting ready to move.” What was with it Haley? It was tragic and she felt sad but it wasn’t like she was a super close friend.
She could see the three little dots as Haley typed a response “Did you see the whole story?”
“No, I’m looking now.” Suddenly her blood ran cold and she found herself struggling to breathe. “Haley, please come I need you.”
Haley poured her a large glass of wine as soon as she arrived and sat down to comfort her. “It’s not your fault hun.”
“I should have said something…let people know. I was just so glad to get him out of my life,” she whimpered.
Haley shook her head “It would not have mattered. They were in Florida, and besides, you rarely spoke to Estelle.”
“I know I hardly spoke to Estelle, that’s the point. I wish I would have. There’s more. Something I’ve never told anyone except my mother.” They went through another glass of wine while she filled in Haley on the incident with the cold, the train, and Mrs. Lively.
“You have to know how that sounds sweetie…” said Haley gently, “but what exactly would you have told Estelle? ‘Don’t marry that guy, a ghost from an old train wreck warned me about him?'”
“I don’t know. And I know it sounds crazy. But there’s one more thing.” Wait here. She went into the closet and pulled out a shoe box. In the box was a picture of her and Paul and an old newspaper clipping. It was one of the clippings about the train wreck she and Mrs. Lively had snuck out of the library. She laid them side by side and took her phone, with the picture of Paul and Estelle and laid that beside them. She called Haley over.
Haley looked at the picture of Janie and Paul next to the new picture of him and Estelle. He didn’t look like he had changed a bit. Then she looked at the old newspaper clipping. The one with the picture of Janie’s aunt and her murderous, jilted fiancé. There stood a very handsome man; it was black and white so she couldn’t make out the color but he had wavy hair, a mischievous grin and one prominent dimple.
Caesar sat in his usual chair overlooking the gardens. It was late spring so they were a carpet of riotous color that fell away down to the edge of the crystal blue lake. There was a sailboat silhouetted against the bright sky, and he wished he was on it. His face didn’t show it, but he was smiling inside. He had always considered himself lucky and here was just more proof. When he could no longer take care of his own home he was faced with living in a sterile senior living tower. The kind with elevators, the kind where everyone decorated their apartment doors to try and retain some sign of their individuality. He loathed those places. Nevertheless, he had nowhere else to go and so he had found the place and was already preparing to move in. That’s when his angel found him.
He was eating breakfast at his favorite diner, an easy walk from his home when he let Sheila, the waitress who attended the local college, know that he likely would not be seeing her again. He was moving away. Sheila teared up. She asked if she could drop something by his house later that day and he said sure, expecting a potted plant or some sort of knick-knack. He gave her his address and she assured him she would be by later.
He was just finishing up the last of his packing and the doorbell rang. He had completely forgotten about Sheila but there she was, standing at his door. But she looked different; freed from her dowdy waitress costume he saw an exotic looking young woman with flaming red hair and piercing blue eyes. She was very pretty, but that is not what struck him…it was her demeanor; she exuded some sort of quiet power…he was trying to put his finger on what it was about her, She smiled and broke the spell.
“Caesar, I have something very special I want to give you. It is very precious and I don’t know if I will ever get another one. I have been holding onto it for the right moment…to give it to you. And now I know the time is now.” She paused for a minute to let it sink in.
“But I don’t think I can accept something that is obviously so important to you…I mean, I figured an African Violet or maybe a pair of praying hands is what you were going to show up with.” He laughed nervously.
She smiled indulgently, “you actually don’t have a choice. We’re all part of bigger plan, we are just players and this is yours. I want you to think carefully, because you will only get to use it once and then it will be gone.” She held out a small brass tablet.
He took the tablet and read the inscription. “Anywhere you want to go. You have one chance only. You will not be returning. She who bears the tablet cannot decide for you. Only you can.”
Caesar handed the tablet back and said “I don’t understand.”
“Where do you want to go? Where would you be happy staying forever”
“Forever?” Asked Caesar.
“Forever”, she replied. “So think carefully”.
And that is how he came to be here. At this beautiful hotel, on this beautiful lake where he and his late wife had vacationed so many times. He was lost in thought about Sheila and how she had came into his life, when he got a tap on the shoulder. “Are you going to sit there all day? I brought your racquet down. Dave and Eileen are already down by the clay courts.”
“I was just daydreaming a bit. I’m ready.” And he looked up at his wife. She looked the same as she had fifty years ago when they’d first come here. Tall, muscular, and fair skinned…with flaming red hair and piercing blue eyes.
He took her hand, “I’m sorry you feel that way. I would have hoped you’d understand.”
“What’s to understand? We’ve been together since, well since we shouldn’t have been together.” She was crying a little now, “But I know, I mean I should have known, I can’t compete with those fancy eastern girls you met at that stupid college.”
He’d tried to time this right; his train left in ten minutes. That would give him enough time to tell her, let it sink in and then hop on the train back east. An easy escape. But it wasn’t working out because wasn’t taking it easy. “It’s not that Bets, sometimes you just meet someone and it feels right.” The conductor was starting to shoo people onto the train.
“Pullman sleepers to the rear, coaches to the front. We’re running two minutes late, all aboard folks!” The conductor pulled a lantern out and lit it, the flame glowed red and green through the Fresnel lenses. He was getting ready to highball the engineer. There was the sound of steam escaping as the brakes released.
“Bets I gotta go.” I’ll write you, try to explain it better.
“Save your time and your 3 cents. I won’t read it”. She walked back to the parking lot.
From the train window he could see her car still sitting there, snow piling up on the windshield. Was she sitting there crying? He would write to her anyway. As the train pulled away, he pictured her in rolled up jeans, daring the boys to throw her off the monkey bars, or in her first dress when they went to that school dance.
As soon as the train cleared the station, he got out his writing pad and began a letter.
January 3rd 1953
I wish I could make you understand. People grow, they change. It doesn’t mean I don’t love you; of course I do. We grew up together, we were inseparable, we will always have a special bond. But Sophie and I have the same interests, her family are all lawyers and bankers…I don’t know how to describe it; we just fit together.
I wish you would write back, if you do, I can explain some more. I need you, you’re still my best friend.
January 26th 1953
It’s been three weeks and still no reply from you. Probably you are not wanting to answer, but you know me, stupid optimist (haha), I am thinking that maybe it got lost in the mail or something. Anyway, would love to talk to you more about the whole thing. Things going okay here, give your Mother and Father my love.
All My Love Danny
February 21 1953
Come on now, this is silly. There are things going on here I really need to talk to you about. Please write back.
March 2nd 1953
I think you’re being very immature about the whole thing. School and things with Sophie going fine. She’d like to meet you.
March 20th 1953
I was hoping that when you finally did write back, it would be something a little nicer than that. Sophie is a warm, intelligent gal. She says she has heard a lot about you and certainly is interested in meeting “your little friend”…I guess she is a tad jealous. Why don’t you hop on a train and come visit. Sophie’s family has a wonderful mansion on the Mainline I am sure you would love staying there.
All My Love Danny
I can’t, I am getting ready for second semester finals. A mainline mansion? Are you serious? I think I know everything I need to know about Sophie baby. I hope you can afford her.
April 10th 1953
School? I didn’t know. Good for you! So you decided to go to Dodson State? That’s a good solid choice and very affordable. Are you getting that secretarial certificate? I am proud of you.
April 19th 1953
Well you didn’t have to get snippy about it. How was I to know? You said you couldn’t afford to go to college with your brother and sister already going. They don’t have a medical school there so what are you going to do?
Maybe you would know if you took three minutes to ask one question about me. Over Christmas break you did nothing but brag about Old-Sock U or wherever the hell you’re going. I should have known there was some snooty-puss chick involved. Even my dad, who always loved you, said you sounded full of yourself.
As to Med School I am pre-accepted if I can ace my second semester. It’s a place called “Yale”. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. I need to be studying but here I am writing to you.
Tell Sophie I’d like to meet her never.
May 21st 1953
I didn’t realize that. I’m sorry, of course I am interested in you. I might not write for awhile, we are going up to Maine to Sophie’s family summer place. It’s supposedly very remote. I do wish you had gotten to know her and her family…they are so smart and so connected. It’s a thrill being around them. Take care and have a good summer.
Yes I was accepted at Yale. Thanks for asking. I am glad you’ll be having such a “connected” “smart” summer. I hope “Sophie” doesn’t get eaten by a bear.
Your favorite Aunt died…three weeks ago. No one knows where Sophie is hiding you. If by some miracle you get this you should call your Mother.
Well, I guess you’ll be happy. You were right. After about a month with that family I realized all they cared about was appearing clever and witty. They spent half the time making fun of people. When I mentioned it they started making fun of me. Sophie even said maybe I should go be with “Rebecca of Sunny Brook Farms”…that would be you. I’m a little heartbroken but not that bad.
I hope your first semester at Yale goes well.
Well, I am sorry you had your heart broken but I am not sure why you would think I’d be happy. By the way, I’ve been seeing someone. He is nice, reminds me of the way you used to be. Good luck to you as well.
August 9th 1953
That stung. You have no idea how much. I hope it works out, but I have to admit I am feeling a little jealous.
I didn’t mean to be so harsh. Maybe I was a little happy. I am sorry for that. The guy didn’t work out, he found a cheerleader type to date. That’s okay. Wasn’t that smart anyway. Will you be home for the holidays?
October 8th 1953
I definitely will be home for the holidays and am looking forward to spending some time with you. I know I kind of screwed up. Can we talk about it then? School is going well, I guess I am going to rush a fraternity after all. Wish me luck. See you soon (hopefully).
What the hell do you think you’re doing? You send your mother a letter that you met a prostitute and you “can’t wait for them to meet her?” Who does that to their mother? Never mind being with a whore. I don’t know you. Don’t come around, my father says he’ll hand you your head if you get near me.
November 19th 1953
I am so sorry!!!! It was a prank that backfired, I swear it. It was part of getting into the fraternity, It’s something they make the pledges do. Some other poor guy had to tell his mother that he’d fallen for a 14 year old but she was really mature for her age and they were getting married soon. Bobby across the street was supposed to check the mail every day and let me know when the letter got there so I could call her right after she read it. He missed a day. I tried to call her right away but the damned party line was clogged up for hours. I finally got through and explained it all. She is still mad about it…I had to quit the fraternity on her account she was so upset.
You are a class A idiot. Lucky for you Carla’s cousin is in that same fraternity but over at Samuelson. He told her that’s the standard initiation they do. She told him he is an idiot just like you are. Your mother has calmed down and my father is saying now he will slap you on the head but won’t actually knock your block off. How come men (boys!) never think?
Hurry up and get home before you hurt yourself. I think our break starts sooner so call me from the station and I will pick you up.
PS: I can’t believe you trusted Bobby to do anything important. You’re as dumb as he is.
January 5th 1954
I am so sorry to be back here without you. The holiday was wonderful. I can’t wait until we are together again. Do you think I can come visit you? Yale is not far on the train.
Of course you can come visit…I would love that. Try not to do anything stupid between now and then (kidding!) I really miss you. You better be living like a monk…you’re still on probation.
“Daddy”. He spun around instinctively, she had not called him that in a long time. Not since the divorce anyway. They’d gone without talking for a couple of years, and he was just glad to have the chance to meet her and the grandkids for a few hours. “Yes?” “You should start dating. Even Mom says so…it’s not good for you to be alone so much”. “Okay Beth, I’ll think about it”. Beth smiled, closed the van door and was gone.
That he hadn’t been dating was a sort of penance he was doing to himself. Most nights he’d come home from the office and sit at home, lonely. It didn’t feel good. He didn’t think he deserved to feel good. So he worked out, went to the supermarket and occasionally met an old buddy for a beer. Lately he had taken to hanging out in the local library. He could sit there and read, and though he rarely spoke to anyone, at least there were people around.
The one person he did speak to was the woman at the circulation desk…nothing heavy, just pleasantries. But he’d thought she might be fun to get to know. She was one of those people who works in a library because she loves books. Now he was looking at her in a different way, like someone he might have asked out when he was good at that sort of thing; back when he was cheating on his wife. But what’s done is done he told himself. He had made peace with his ex-wife, he was rebuilding his relationship with his daughter and he’d cleaned up his own house. He knew he would never cheat on anyone again, but that’s easy to say when you’re not in a relationship.
Her name was Annette. She was pretty; with sandy blonde hair, a broad smile, and a friendly voice. What else did he need to know? Oh, and she exuded confidence. He asked her if he could buy her a cup of coffee after her shift ended. She smiled and said “no, but you can buy me a beer.”
It became a ritual, he would stop in after work about an hour before her shift ended, he’d read for awhile and around six o’clock he would ask her to dinner. She said yes. She said yes 14 times in a row until she finally said “this is ridiculous, you know I am going to say ‘yes’. She could tell he was hesitant because of the trauma he had caused himself. He had told her everything having vowed not to keep a secret from a partner ever again. So she took the lead: “It’s about time I saw where you live”. He still showed up at the library after work but now it was to walk her home…his or hers, whatever they were feeling that night.
When he invited her up to the cabin he shared with his ex-wife, she seemed hesitant, a bit out of character for her but he figured it was because of the connection to his ex. Once she got there she settled in but still seemed a little on edge. He turned on a movie, lit a fire, broke out a bottle of wine and she started to relax. Before long she was dozing with her head on his arm while he watched an old movie. Then he dozed off.
Annette shot upright, on full red alert, eyes fixed on the patio door overlooking the lake “did you hear that?” No, he hadn’t heard anything. “There it is again.” Still, he heard nothing, “there’s a lot of wildlife out there, bears, bobcats, thats what you’re hearing”. She shook her head, “no…thats a human. Where’s my bag?” Her voice was calm but her tone was urgent. “I put it on the bed upstairs…” She tore up the stairs after it. Uh oh. Now he was hearing something, and she was right, it was starting and stopping, being careful…definitely not a wild animal. She reappeared carrying some sort of automatic weapon. “What the fuck!?” “Let’s go, out of the house before it’s too late!”. She dragged him out the side door and he made for the truck, “no, get away from the truck. Into the woods, follow me”. As they made the edge of the woods the truck went up in a ball of flames. She dove behind a downed tree and he jumped in after her. “You’re not a regular librarian are you?” She grabbed the back of his head and kissed him hard on the mouth. “No. I’m not.” She shoved his face into the mud. “Keep your head down”.
He tried looking at his watch but she’d swatted his arm down. She was right, the watch face lighting up would have been like a floodlight out here. Instead he watched the sliver of a moon moving across the sky and knew it had been at least two hours. That was two hours of quiet because the carnage had been over in seconds. Still, she had put in a fresh magazine and they sat there and waited…just in case. The weapon made little noise, but he could still smell the cordite and hear the screaming of the one that took two shots. Five attackers. Six shots. All were down, and she was calm…her breathing slow and steady. They were so close that in the silence he could make out her heartbeat. It was slow. Who the hell was she? She had tied her hair back in a ponytail and it showed up off her perfect silouette in the half-light. He was either in love or terrified…or maybe both.
The sky was starting to brighten in the east when she finally thought it was safe to get up. They walked the perimeter of the clearing around the cabin until she found all five kills. Then she started searching the bodies. When they got to the first one he could see that he was wearing kevlar, with a helmet and a windbreaker. She ruffled through his front pockets and asked him to help her flip over the body. He froze. She must have seen the look on his face “its not what you think.” There were three large letters on the back of his jacket: ATF.
He was on autopilot just following directions now. She had found what she wanted: two sets of car keys and didn’t find what she knew she wouldn’t: any kind of ID. “Did you see any badges?” He shook his head, unable to speak, “Feds carry badges. Always.” His voice came back to him “then who were they?” “I don’t know but I know who sent them. I’ll explain later. We need to get out of here before someone comes looking for them. These clowns were sloppy, they’ll send the “A” team next time”. She took one set of car keys and threw them in the lake, then she grabbed her bag and told him to get a move on. There were two identical vans at the end of the driveway, just like she knew there would be. They jumped in one and took off.
Nine hours later they were on their third “borrowed” car and about 450 miles west of where they’d started. They stopped about once an hour, first using one of her credit cards, then her ATM card to take out cash and buy supplies. Then they used his cards, leaving a trail of transactions heading due west. They cruised a dark residential neighborhood until she found a grey van, a ubiquitous type. She had it started in under a minute, drove down the road, parked, then took off the plate. She replaced it with one she had taken off the van they took from the snatch team. “Why did you do that?” “It’s the one plate that no one is going to report stolen.” They stopped and filled up the van, this time being careful of security cams and using a card that was under a false name. She made a call on a burner phone she had in her bug out bag, and had a conversation in Russian. Not surprising; she had told him she had immigrated from Russia as a young girl. When she hung up, the phone went out the window into the woods and she just said “I got us a safe place to stay”. Then they headed back east.
He didn’t ask many questions on the way back, but she explained a few things without much detail. She once held a dangerous job in law enforcement and there were people that wanted to see her dead. She thought she knew who set up the grab and he was extremely dangerous, and evidently had held a grudge for years. “That’s all I can tell you for right now. I need to know if you are going to leave because if you are the less you know the better”. “To be honest, I was wondering that myself. I shouldn’t leave you alone, though you seem to be able to fend for yourself.” For the first time in hours a smile crept onto her face. “I can, but we need to decide what’s safest for you. Those creeps would have called in your plate before they attacked so you can bet whoever sent them knows who you are. You’d have to run.” “For how long? What about my daughter, my grandkids?” “Well, I was the one that killed five of his guys, but he’s gonna assume you helped. He’s really after me so he might get tired looking for you after awhile. On the other hand…he may never stop” It was a pretty stark choice; go on the run and hope someday he may be able to contact his daughter, or stay with this woman that he cared about but obviously didn’t know. He looked at her across the front seats “you’re not gonna run are you?” She shook her head, “no, I’m over this shit.”
After driving another 6 hours back east, they hopped off an interstate exit in the middle of nowhere, then turned onto a dirt road that wound up a steep hill for 3 miles. At the top was an abandoned ski resort; there were dilapidated buildings, old lift towers that looked creepy in the moon light, and a huge gravel parking lot overgrown with weeds. They rolled up to a cabin on one side of the lot that was in surprisingly good shape. “Welcome home”. Annette got out and stretched her legs then motioned for him to follow her through the front door. Inside was a sparkling clean living room with a modern TV. He opened the refrigerator and took out a bottle of his favorite beer. “Seriously, you had them stock my beer?” “We could be here for awhile, might as well be comfortable.” He nodded and guzzled the beer then helped her drag in her bug out bag and the few supplies they had brought along the way with the now useless credit cards. She had been driving for hours, not to mention the activities of the night before, so he told her to relax and he would make dinner. He hadn’t checked the pantry yet, but from what he saw in the fridge he wouldn’t have a problem finding ingredients. She kissed him on the cheek and went off to take a bath.
They’d finished dinner and were still at the table enjoying a glass of wine supplied by her “friends”. “I know you’re hesitant to give me details, but I’m here, and I’m trusting you with my life. Time to fill me in.” She sighed, “I was undercover for two years. This was an extremely bad guy and we wanted him.” “Two years and you couldn’t grab him?” She shook her head “thats not the way it works. He supplied money, inititated some things, but there was a huge network of people with blood on their hands. We needed all, or at least most of them. We were getting close, really close, and then it all went to shit. They’ve murdered so many more…because we didn’t finish the job”. “So…he wants you dead? Why would he bother? You were a Fed doing your job. Why would he risk bringing so much more heat on himself?” Annette got up and stood at the window; looking at the moonlit mountains with her back to him. “He holds a special grudge for me. I was his mistress.”
Neither of them said anything for a long time. Finally, he got up and said “fuck this, I’m going for a walk.” Annette had never been angry at him but that changed in an instant “you bastard! Are you fucking judging me? Mister ‘I screwed everything in a skirt while my wife and little girl were at home waiting for me’?” “Excuse me, I’m having a hard time processing that your job involved putting some thug’s dick in your mouth.” “I did what I had to do, if you don’t like it, there’s the door. You can fuck yourself on the way out”. He took a deep breath and turned back towards her. “I’m sorry. Someone just tried to kill me, I’m in hiding for fear of my life, I haven’t slept in 24 hours and I found out instead of a librarian I’m dating fucking Atomic Blonde.” She took it down a notch “I really am a librarian. I never lied to you”. He nodded “no you didn’t lie. You just left out all the interesting parts”. They both started to laugh, “go for your walk before we kill each other. Don’t be alarmed, the friends that helped with this place are coming by to try and help us get out of this alive.” “Are there going to me more surprises?” She shrugged, “Yep”. He nodded and headed outside to clear his head.
He was back in a minute…”tell me these are your guys”. He was followed into the cabin by two tall lanky men who looked like the kind of guys you call when you need something fixed in a hurry. She spoke to them in Russian then turned to him “sorry, we’ll speak English from now on. This is Sasha and Yuri”. They all nodded at each other and he asked “so do the Feds use a lot of Russians?” Sasha spoke up “we are not with Feds.” He looked at Annette “but you said you were a Federal agent…” “No, you said that. I said I was on an undercover assignment. You filled in the rest.” He started to freak out, “oh that’s just great you’re all Russian spies, you kill people and now I’m on the lam with you.” Sasha asked Yuri “what he means ‘on the lam'” ? Yuri shrugged. He started yelling, “who the hell cares??? If I don’t get killed I’m going to jail and will probably share a cell with Boris here”. Annette intervened “we’re not spies, we’re police, or I should say we were police”. His head was spinning, “Russian police working in the U.S. and this is Kosher?” Yuri wiggled his hand “sometimes is Kosher sometimes is not”. “Which time is this?” “Sometimes your police work in Russia. Sometimes government says ‘okay come get these guys’. Sometimes government says ‘no'”. “And now?” “Sometimes government doesn’t want to know”. He looked at Annette “I need a drink”
They were all staring at him and he shook his head. “You’re crazy. I get it, he killed over 200 Russian children, now I want the guy too. But they’re just gonna kill me and then torture and kill Annette. There’s just three of you.” “We have other help”. “Who”? “Good help”. Yuri bent close and whispered to him “let’s take a walk”. They got up to leave and Annette wanted to walk with them but Yuri stopped her: “Just us, we are going to talk”. Annette shrugged and sat back down while they headed outside.
Yuri put his hand on his shoulder; “I am going to tell you the truth. This is dangerous.” “I know. So whats the plan?” Yuri filled him in…it made sense but who was he to judge? It seemed like there were a lot of assumptions but what choice did he have? “Are you in or out? You could be killed. I am just being honest.” “Yes, I know, but these guys are after Annette and my god those children…”. Yuri nodded, “Look, not everyone is supposed to be hero and you have a daughter and grandchildren. Are you sure?” He nodded “I’m in”. “Thank you my friend, we will do our best to protect you”. “Just get that guy and take care of Annette”.
The next morning, Yuri and Sasha had dissappeared, having risen early and presumably off to set the plan in motion. They would be intentionally giving away their location, so he was all in now. The irony was that he and Annette had slept together for the first time that night. It wasn’t the romantic moment he had envisioned, but they made up for a lot of time that they both knew they may never get. But now it was all business, they drove to the nearest town, walked into a diner and ordered lunch. They couldn’t see him but they knew Sasha was outside somewhere where he had a good view of the restaurant. They took their time eating and when they were done, Annette got up to leave, kissing him goodbye and headed out the door. He wondered if he’d ever see her again.
He ordered another cup of coffee as two grim faced men came into the diner and picked a table between him and the door. He pretended to watch a video on his phone but he was really watching for a text from Sasha. It came about 10 minutes after she left. “They have her”. He glanced up at the two men that were presumably watching him: no reaction. Just then three teenagers came in the restaurant, a boy and two girls. One of the girls gave him a big hug, then sat down in the booth next to him. The other two plopped down opposite and he called the waitress over and they ordered food. The kids all knew each other and talked about some drama at school. He noticed the two goons starting to get restless. He had to smile; the kids were part of the “help” that Yuri had told him about.
Suddenly, the goons were gone. The kids had distracted him ordering food and he hadn’t noticed. He texted Sasha letting him know. “Good. Stay there with the kids for another hour but I am sure they’ve decided you’re not a threat.” Then one more update “everything going well. Don’t worry.” Easy for him to say. Part of his job was done, he had drawn off a couple of the bad guys and kept them occupied. He was probably safe but Annette could be dead any minute and if Sasha and Yuri didn’t make it, he’d never know what happened. They didn’t even know where this guy was, though Annette was sure he was in the area. “This is the best place to hide, there are so many spies around here he would just blend into the background noise. Besides, the US isn’t looking for him”. He hoped to God she was right.
He got a message from Sasha. It was an address and he knew exactly what to do; it was a town in the next state. He looked up the local police department then pulled out a burner phone and gave them a ring. He avoided calling 911 so they couldn’t see where he was calling from. “I’m not sure but I think someone fired shots at me after I dropped off a package”. He pulled out another phone and handed it to one of the girls. She did a great job sounding hysterical: “someone chased me and tried to grab me when I jogged by the house”. She gave the name of some girl she had found in an internet article about local high school sports. The result was predictable. Within a few minutes another text from Sasha “Police pulling up. You should leave now. There is a room for you at the motel down the street. Check in and hang tight. You are clear.” “Clear” meant that he had no tail waiting outside the diner, not that he was out of danger. How Sasha could know that or where he was he would love to know but he’d been told the less he knew the better. He assumed it was more of that “help”.
He wanted to talk to Beth, but of course he couldn’t. He’d been using a phone he’d gotten from Sasha and Yuri along with the burners because he didn’t dare turn his on. So he spent a sleepless night eating microwave dinners, snacks and cheap beer he’d gotten from the motel lobby. He fell asleep and woke up just after eight the next morning and still nothing on his phone. Yuri had told him that if he didn’t hear something by 10am to walk down to the Amtrak station, take the 10:30 and to run and keep on running. He packed up and walked back to the diner to get a proper breakfast. That was part of his own plan. Supposedly Sasha had swept the area but in case someone was watching him we would look relaxed…not like someone that was going to run to the police. When he was done eating that would put him that much closer to the train station. He hoped it wouldn’t matter. He grabbed a newspaper and read every story in the sports section. Apparently the local high school team had a hot baseball prospect, a pitcher, and he’d signed with the Reds. It was 9:50, and despite trying to remain calm he was shaking. Even when they were being shot at he wasn’t that scared but now he could feel fear burning a hole in his stomach. He pulled himself together, paid the check and headed for the station, trying not to think about his life spiraling away from him.
He started walking and pulled the phone out. He hadn’t heard it or felt it buzz but he looked at it desperately hoping there was a message anyway. Nothing, just a text from Beth…wait, he looked at the phone again, he’d pulled the wrong phone off the charger in the morning! He went through his day pack and came up with the phone Sasha had given him, it was dead. It was 10:05, shit, they would think he’d gotten spooked and run if he didn’t answer and then what? He sprinted back to the diner and found an outlet and waited for the phone to get enough charge. Finally an apple appeared on the screen and it started up…so slow, damnit hurry! Finally he unlocked it and waited…a string of text notices flew by on the screen…he went to the last one: “Where the fuck are you? We have to leave NOW” he couldn’t type straight but finally he typed “Dine” frigging spell check, he was starting to retype when a car rolled up and screeched to a halt “get in!” It was Sasha and Yuri, with a woman he didn’t recognize and more importantly without Annette. “We almost left you, we have to move. What the hell happened”. “I’m an idiot, I had the wrong phone”. Yuri shook his head but was sympathetic, you are not professional, nerves make us do funny things.” He was afraid to ask “where is Annette and who is this?”, jerking his thumb at the backseat. “Annette is fine and this is ‘Miss you don’t need to know'” He looked over at her “she just shrugged but smiled. She didn’t look like someone you wanted to tangle with so the smile was clearly just to calm his nerves.
“Annette is okay. You should go home now, the police will be looking for anything out of place and this town is not so far from where he was. That includes people checking into motels and strangers eating in diners.” “But we used a fake name.” “Correct” said Sasha “ but not a fake face”. He nodded “why are the police looking around and did they arrest the guy?” The three Russians laughed. “He won’t be bothering anyone anymore.” “You killed him?” “No, police killed him. Such a shame. Is crazy to shoot at police, they’re always going to kill you”. “You said the guy was smart why would he shoot at them?” “I never said he did.” His mouth fell open…YOU shot at the cops?” Yuri shrugged “just over their heads, no harm done”.
They had taken him to the bus station “how did Annette get away?” Sasha laughed “she is good looking woman with Krav Maga skills. Young meathead guards with guns are no match”. He could only imagine. “So when will I see her again?” Sasha put his hand on his shoulder “thank you my friend. Now go to your home”. He shook hands with both of them, but the woman remained in the car giving him that odd smile.
“So what’s this?” Beth was fingering a bronze medal with a red star imprinted. It hung from a red ribbon and there were Cyrillic letters around the outside. “It looks Russian”. “Oh I picked it up at an antique store. It looked interesting.” Sasha had given it to him as an award to thank him for his help. “You should find out what it says.” “Yeah maybe I should”. He already knew what it said “Finisher, Sochi Marathon 2014”. That was Sasha’s sense of humor but he knew it was actually heartfelt by all of the Russians. “Well, she seems nice”. They had just gotten back from dinner with Annette who had taken a walk so that he and Beth could have some time alone. “You actually found someone age appropriate but it’s hard to believe she’s 60, looks forty.” He put two fingers up in the air “honest to God”. Beth laughed, “I believe you. What did you say she does?” “She’s a librarian”. Beth put her arms around him in a hug. “I’m happy for you Daddy. Just what you need; nice and calm and no drama”. “Thanks honey, you’re right. No drama.”