“How have you been?”
I shook my head to clear the stray thoughts away and focused on the squat, turtle-like middle-aged man sitting across from me.
“Fine,” I insisted, wishing more than the glass-top coffee table separated us.
He scribbled something in the notepad laid over his crossed knee, his dark wool sweater making a slight scratching noise as he moved. “What have we talked about before? This is a safe environment. You can speak honestly and freely here. I need you to speak honestly and freely if you have any hope of getting better,” he admonished, his eyes cutting down at me through his half-rimmed glasses.
I pulled myself out of the sinking pit of the plush couch, hating that it sat so much lower than Doctor Whitesell’s chair.
“Who says I’m not speaking freely?” I insisted as I paced behind the couch.
Doctor Whitesell scribbled something more in his notepad as he leaned back and tracked my movement.
Indulging in a deep sigh, I calmed myself and forced my body back into the sinking cushions of his ivory couch. “I’m fine,” I repeated. “I’ve been fine for a while now. I just don’t understand why I have to keep coming back here and talking to you and dredging things up again and again.”
I could see that Doctor Whitesell was about to launch into some undoubtedly long-winded reprimands and recrimination about why I needed to keep coming here, so I spoke first.
“It’s normal, you know. People say they’re fine all the time. People say they’re fine instead of telling everyone on the street who asks them how they’re doing every little thing that’s wrong. ‘Cause no one really wants to hear that anyway. And hasn’t that been the point of all this?” I asked, throwing my arms out to encompass the room and its entire palate of the shades of white and cream and modern but impersonal decor. A lot like Doctor Whitesell that way if I thought about it. Very impersonal. “To get back to ‘normal,’ to get back to healthy and functioning in society?” I continued.
Doctor Whitesell held the pen between his two hands as he spoke, his hands bending down to point at me with the pen suspended between them. “You know we don’t like to use the word ‘normal,’ Lane. We’re just trying to help you work through some issues, and yes, as you said, become a healthy, functioning member of society again.”
I threw my hands out in exasperation. “Well, I am! So why do I have to keep coming back here where you analyze every inflection of my voice when I say, ‘I’m fine’ or when I say anything else?”
“Are you feeling threatened, Lane?” he asked, continuing to hold his silver pen between his two hands.
The Doc might have thought he was the master of reading body language and at manipulating his own body language, but I saw the glimmer of fear in his eyes and the way he held his body just a bit tenser. The same fear that had been there since our very first session. He tried so hard to act nonchalant and pretend I didn’t scare him, but I knew I did. I scared a lot of people.
I forced myself to lean back in the couch and pretended to calmly contemplate him and the question. “No. Why would I feel threatened?” I asked, my voice calm and carefully puzzled. “I’m just explaining that I would like to move on with my life, and I feel that if I have to keep coming back here three times a week to meet with you, I’ll never be able to put this all behind me and move on with my life.”
He relaxed and I saw the fear mostly leave his eyes.
As good as he thought he was at manipulating body language, I was better.
“And you feel like you are able to move on with your life now? You don’t feel like you’re in danger of slipping back into the delusions?” he asked, setting the pen down and threading his fingers together as he clasped his hands.
I mimicked the position, carefully leaning back into the couch and rolling my shoulders back as I told him my practiced words.
“Of course that’s still a danger. I’d probably be lying if I said that danger was gone forever. Every time I have a difficult day, I think about how much easier it would be to slip into that world again. But I know now that it’s not real, and that I can’t stay there just because it’s easier. I know the difference between that world and this. This life is real and good or bad, I have to stay here and deal with it. I’ll probably always struggle with that, but I know now that I can make it in the real world and I can overcome that struggle.”
I saw the pleased smile as he nodded his head, his short neck all but disappearing into his sweater every time his chin dipped down. But he smiled approvingly and scribbled again in the notepad. My eyes tracked that notepad, knowing the key to my freedom was under that pad of yellow paper.
“And do you feel like your life is getting back on track, that you’re finding some routine and stability in your life?”
Pausing, I pretended to carefully consider my answer. “Yes. I do think I am. Or at least I’m trying my best to. I’ve got a place of my own, and I’ve got a job to go to every day. It keeps me busy and gives me something to focus my mind and attention on. I’m grateful for it. I’m very grateful for everyone who has helped get those things.”
He nodded with a satisfied smile. “And your job? How’s that going?”
My smile stretched a little wider and a little brighter. “Good. Very good. Maybe it’s not quite what I would have imagined for myself before everything, but it keeps me busy. Gives me purpose. It’s better than sitting around all day obsessing.”
“And you’re enjoying working at the call center?” he asked, scribbling once more on the notepad. When I nodded, he asked, “Things are staying smooth and steady there?” I nodded once more. “Perhaps I should call your employer again and see how he feels things are progressing,” he murmured, more to himself as he continued writing notes.
“Of course,” I pleasantly told him. “If you’d like to check up on me, that’s fine.”
Doctor Whitesell finally looked up from his notes and gave a half-smile. “No. Maybe I don’t need to. I can appreciate what you are trying to tell me. That you want to get on with your life and me continually checking on you will just keep holding you back from moving on.” He set his pen down and his long, thin fingers absently drummed against the notepad that held my fate.
“You’ve certainly made remarkable progress,” he finally continued with a self-satisfied voice, pulling some papers from beneath the yellow notepad. I nearly held my breath at their sight. “You’ve finally come to acknowledge the delusions you suffered from for so long, and have made great strides in rejoining society as a functioning member. And you’ve even managed to be weaned off all your medications. I must admit that I very much doubted this possibility three years ago when they first brought me in to see you on that base. You almost seem like a different woman now.”
The practiced smile stretched my lips as I tore my gaze from the papers he now thumbed through. “Of course. I’m not the same woman I was then. It has all changed me, but you’ve helped me overcome those difficulties and move on with my life. I’ll always be grateful for the help you gave me.”
“But you want to move on with your life,” he repeated, finally setting the papers down against the notepad.
“Yes, of course I do. I need to get back to some normalcy,” I easily agreed, reminding myself to breathe in and out.
“And Doctor Cruthers? How does he feel you have progressed physically?” he asked, still not moving to pick up his pen and sign the papers.
At the mention of the other doctor, I successfully fought the urge to curl my body protectively around myself and calmly answered, “That I’ve progressed as far as I’m likely to be physically able to. The scars will always be there, and my body and my joints will probably always ache, especially when the weather changes. The ligaments and muscles in my shoulders have been repaired as much as surgery can, and they’ll probably always be at eighty percent, but I’ve healed as much as I can.”
He nodded and picked up his pen starting to bring it down towards those papers. And then with another satisfied sigh, he signed them and filled out several sections. “Well, I don’t see any reason not to sign off on your case. As I told you, I think you’ve made a remarkable recovery,” he said as he stood and walked towards me, holding the release papers out towards me.
I eagerly stood as well, grasping the papers of my freedom with one hand and the hand he held out towards me with the other.
“I don’t see any reason why you can’t be released from my mandatory care, although I will offer that my door is always open and if you ever feel things are getting tough or if you just need a friendly ear to listen to you, just stop by.”
Releasing his hand, I continued my practiced smile and easy tone. “Of course, I’ll stop by if things ever get tough, although I’m hoping to keep getting better.”
He walked with me through the door. “You remember of course, that we talked about this being something you’ll never completely overcome, Lane. It’s a struggle you’ll face every day. I’d prefer you continue to see me, or at least see someone on a regular basis. I do understand if you don’t want to continue seeing the same psychiatrist who saw you at your worst though, so do look through those lists of names I gave you at our last session and at least consider seeing one of them periodically.”
My smile stayed in place by my will alone. We both knew the Marines couldn’t force me to keep seeing a psychiatrist indefinitely. And that he had had to sign off on my competency at some point. “Sure,” I lied. “I’ve got the list at home and I’ll try to find one of them that seems like a good fit.”
We parted at the door. Me ecstatic to finally be rid of the good doctor, and him elated with the story of my “success” which he was certain to write about in all the journals to tout his own “success” and fame. But I didn’t really care.
I was finally free of him.
As I hit the cold Chicago air, I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out my cell phone, seeing that I had received voicemails while I’d had the thing on silent during my session. Dialing the buttons on the screen, I lifted it to my ear just as the deep voice sounded through the phone.
“Lane? Where the hell are you? That’s four days of work now that you’ve missed. I can’t keep letting this slid. You’ve been out more days than you’ve been in to work lately, and you rarely call in anymore. I know I said I’d help you out as a favor to Nate, but I’m done. I’ve had enough. You’re fired.”
I cringed at the mention of my ex, but deleted the message and played the next one.
“Lane, if you get this, please give me a call back. I know you really don’t want to see me or hear from me, but I’m trying to help you out. Cal says you haven’t been to work in days… Have your delusions started again? You’re drinking again, too, aren’t you?” Sigh. “Please just call me back, babe, we worry about you.”
“Fuck you, babe, and go back to your bitch wife and three kids. I don’t need your concern,” I growled as I deleted that message as well. I may have told Doctor Whitesell I’d forgiven and forgotten my ex-husband’s infidelity and then him marrying my former best friend while I’d been a POW, but reality was a ways from that yet. It was bad enough I’d been indebted to him for getting me the lousy job.
At least I didn’t have that problem anymore.
I stuffed the cell phone back in my pocket and kept walking through the cold to my studio apartment, dropping the envelope with my release papers in a mailbox along the way.
At least that part of my life had been freed now, too. But I wondered just how free my life would ever be.
The frigid air of Chicago winter was far from the moist humidity of North Korea, but all the talk of my so-called delusions seemed to transform the air until I could almost smell the damp heat all around me. I’d been thankful to leave that humidity behind after Korea, but the days after were almost more difficult than my captivity had been.
The walls and all the linens and furniture were variations of white. I suppose they were supposed to seem calming. But after years in the monotony of dark rock, I yearned for some color. Some vibrancy.
But I suppose they feared it would excite me too much.
Couldn’t have that happening again.
“Sergeant Rowan? Did you hear me?”
I jerked my gaze from the room and turned towards the probing voice. A short, squat middle-aged man with thinning brown hair was crouched in front of me.
“I said that I was Doctor Whitesell and I’ve been brought in to help you,” he explained as he readjusted very scholarly looking glasses on his nose.
Ignoring the man who would only sing the same tune as the others, I turned back to looking at the wall and wrapped my arm tighter around my knees. I rocked slightly in my position on the bed. The pain was better than what I’d lived with for so long, but I wondered if the dull ache in my body would ever dissipate. Not even the painkillers they’d given me seemed to help much.
“I’m told they’ve done extensive surgery on your arm and shoulder in particular, how does it feel?” the little man asked as he began reaching out to touch the arm bandaged and strapped across my midsection.
“Don’t touch me!” I hissed, springing to my feet on the bed and ignoring the fiery pain so sudden a movement induced.
The little doctor remained in his lowered position, unmoving and seeming unfazed by my sudden movement. My gaze narrowed on him, hating him for fearing me no more than my captors did. What a truly pathetic state I’d been reduced to, that not even a squat little man could fear me.
“I won’t touch you, and I won’t hurt you” he replied agreeably. I turned away at him thinking I feared him. I didn’t. Really. “I just wanted to see how you’ve been progressing physically. They said you’ve put on some weight with the IV fluids they’ve given you, but I can see you could use some more,” he added, looking me up and down.
The cringe came automatically as I glanced down at the sickly body I now inhabited. With another grimace, I forced my gaze away.
“I’m pleased to finally hear you speak to me,” the little man continued. He gestured back down at the bed. “Perhaps you’ll sit back down and speak more with me.”
Backing up, I moved away from him until my back hit the wall. I would have remained standing, but my legs shook from the pain and effort of standing even that long, so I slowly collapsed back onto the bed, watching as the man drug a chair over to the bed and sat in it.
“That’s better,” he cheerfully said. “Would you like to talk to me?”
“About what?” I asked, suspicion laced though my words. “I don’t know you.”
“Ah, but if we talk, then you’ll soon know me.”
I looked away, my gaze again focusing on the locked doorway barring my freedom. The little man spoke to me, but I didn’t care to hear a tune I’d already been sung.
“All right, you may not want to know about me, but I already know a great deal about you,” the little man eventually said.
My attention came back to him as he leafed through the papers on his clipboard, his fingers absently twirling a pen.
“You know nothing about me,” I lowly growled at the little man—Whitesell, hadn’t he said?
He continued leafing through the papers, not bothering to look up at me. “I know quite a bit about you actually,” he said, finally looking up as my gaze drifted back to the door. “You were separated from your unit during a village building, peace-keeping mission along the borders of North Korea, captured, and taken across into North Korea. Your unit had thought you killed along with the others killed in the skirmish at the village. You remained a POW for over four years, an impressive display of strength and fortitude I must say, given what you suffered.”
I could almost feel his gaze traveling over the unfamiliar and frail body I now inhabited. “I’m not frail or weak,” I insisted. “I escaped.”
“You even invented an escape where you ended back up in your hometown of Chicago and became a police officer. Just as you had planned to become before you joined the Marines.”
“I did. I was a cop.”
“Then where is this partner you said you had? Where is this Detective Mike Mancini then? There is no Detective Mike Mancini in homicide, or anywhere in the entire police department in Chicago. There never was.”
I shook my head. “Mike was real. I knew him. I knew his wife and kids. He was my partner after I escaped from North Korea the first time.”
“No,” he replied, and I cut my eyes back to him. “That’s not what happened. Don’t you remember? You were rescued. When the Marines heard stories of a white woman in a North Korean prison, they came to rescue you. Don’t you remember? Escaping on your own was just part of your delusion.”
My eyes narrowed on him. “I’ve heard this song before. But I know what happened. Why are you doing this to me?”
He smiled, a faintly disgusting look of sympathy. “This is part of your problem, Sergeant. You’re having trouble sifting through the reality you created to deal with your captivity and remembering truth.”
“It was real. I know it.”
He shook his head and insisted. “It’s a fantasy you created to cope, but you’ve been freed now, and you need to learn how to sift through that fantasy world you created.”
I glanced at the locked door. “I’ll never be free,” I whispered.
“You’re only staying here until you get better, Sergeant. You’re not being kept here forever.”
“It was real,” I insisted, looking back at the doctor. “I know it was.”
He flipped through his papers before looking back up at me. “You maintained that you were a scout sniper and that you were captured on a mission, but you know that’s not right. Don’t you remember, Sergeant? You know better. You know woman don’t yet hold combat positions. You were in that village in a peacekeeping capacity. You reinvented yourself in your fantasy to explain your capture and make yourself the downtrodden hero, but it was simply an accident of fate that you were captured.”
I shook my head. “You know nothing about me.”
After another glance at his papers, he continued. “You reinvented yourself in many ways, didn’t you? You even remade yourself as more than human in your delusions. Made yourself part-fairy to imagine yourself stronger and even gave yourself special powers; that you were telepathic and could hear thoughts, but you know that can’t be true either. You know such things don’t exist”
I shook my head and pressed my hand over one ear, turning away from his spiteful words. “You don’t know anything.”
“Then tell me my thoughts,” he challenged.
But I continued to rock and stare at the door.
“You even created a magical escape to a fictional world where you were the star of the story,” he went on. “Creating an almost fan made fiction in your mind of Tolkien’s world, where you had friends and even love.”
My rocking increased. “It wasn’t fiction. It was real. It was real.”
“You know better, Sergeant. It was an understandable means of escape at the time, but now we need to focus on getting you better.”
“You don’t know anything!” I hissed, turning back to him. “It was real!”
“It wasn’t real, Elaina, you know that, and you can see the facets of your fantasy unraveling. Allow them to. Remember what was real and see what was fantasy.”
“Don’t call me that!” I growled. “Don’t say that name.”
His brows rose at my outburst. “Fine. Lane is what you prefer, so we’ll use that. But you must start to understand the reasons your fantasy world could not have been.”
“It was. It was real. I’m not lying.”
“Then how do you explain somehow becoming a scout sniper when woman aren’t allowed into combat positions? How do you explain waking back up in the same prison you inhabited? If it were real, wouldn’t you have stayed in that world instead? Why would you have come back to that prison cell?”
I rose to my knees. “I couldn’t stay there!”
He leafed through the papers again, not really paying attention to me. “Yes, you said you were going to be killed there in that fantasy world. How was it? A blade to the neck?”
I leapt past the doctor, grabbing the plastic clipboard from his hands and slamming it against the wall. It split into two pieces, and with the jagged edges of one, I held it against the offending man’s neck as I stood close behind him, my damaged arm yanked free of its binding to hold his head back against my stomach, his throat bared to me.
“Like this,” I whispered in his ear, bending down over him. I pressed the jagged edge against the side of his throat. “The blade was swinging to strike me here, but They couldn’t let me die there.” The little man trembled beneath my fingers. “Do I seem so frail and helpless now? Am I weak and pathetic?” I whispered in his ear.
The doorknob rattled as someone fumbled with it. Dropping the broken clipboard, I straightened and backed away as several men grabbed me, something sharp pressing into my upper arm.
The little doctor stood, his hand clapped over his neck and fear properly in place. “See,” I told him. “You know to fear me now. Just like those North Koreans did when I escaped, just before I killed them.”
“It’s part of the delusion,” he insisted in a croak. “You’ve killed no one, killing your captors was just part of the fantasy. You’ve killed no one before.”
I felt my body starting to go lax as I shook my head. “No. It has to be real.” I felt a tear roll down my cheek. “It has to be better than this life,” I whispered before I felt my eyes roll back into darkness.
I shook myself from the memory and pulled my coat tighter around myself, continuing on my path to my little apartment.
Cold air greeted me when I opened the door to the small studio, but I couldn’t bring myself to close the window to the fire escape all the way. Instead, I walked further into my cluttered space and cranked up the space heater, finally sitting down in front of its warm glow at the desk in my apartment. My laptop was still turned on, so I flipped it open and began scouring the internet once more.
Nearly every moment of my sleep since I’d left my prison had been plagued with dreams of what had been. What they told me couldn’t be possible, but I knew somehow had to be true. It had been too real to be fantasy.
Every day I sifted through sites dedicated to fictional stories based on Tolkien’s world, but I could never find anything that was quite right. Nothing that told the story right or had any of the characters right. None of them had him right.
Too often, I stumbled across stories that were nothing more than self-inserts of desperate girls who wanted to escape the realities of their own lives. But none of them really understood the truth. None of them really got that it was truly out there.
I’d considered several times writing down my own story, but I knew it would just seem like another desperate self-insertion into the story. Just as Doctor Whitesell had insisted. But I knew they weren’t delusions or fantasy. They were real. And I’d really been there.
After several more hours of fruitless searching for something that could prove me right, I stood and stretched my back, rubbing at the aches that would never quite leave my body. My fridge was mostly empty, but I dug through the lower shelf and grabbed another bottle of beer.
But after I’d down that bottle, I found that the ache in my chest hadn’t quite abated enough. Beer didn’t seem to be enough tonight.
The bottle of vodka in my freezer would do the trick though. I briefly considered grabbing a glass, but chose just to carry the bottle with me as I crawled through my window and then up the fire escape, dragging my thick blanket with me.
I preferred being up on the roof instead of been cooped up in the confines of my small studio apartment. An old chaise-lounge sitting out of the direct wind and against the building was my only comfort from the elements other than the blanket I’d brought with, but the bottle of vodka would soon warm me as well.
Here on the roof, I was away from the noise of my neighbors and could block out the sounds of the city as I stared at the stars. Not that any were visible in the glare of the city, but if I squinted my eyes just right, I could imagine how they should be on that dark canvas. How they’d been in that other world.
I angrily drank another swig of vodka. Everyone kept telling me that world wasn’t real. That it never had been. But I couldn’t stop dreaming of it. I couldn’t stop the vivid memories I had of that place. Such vivid memories and recollections couldn’t be hallucinations. Could they? They all had to be wrong.
Or was I?
The pounding on my door met me as I crawled back into my apartment through the window. I didn’t know how long the pounding had been going on, but I didn’t need to open the door to know whom it would be. Only my landlord, Bruno, could pound on a door that hard, and that nonstop for so long.
I hurriedly changed my clothes as the pounding continued, punctuated every so often by the shouts of, “Open the goddamned door, Lane, and pay your rent! You’re overdue!”
Once I was dressed, I grabbed the open envelope of money from my desk drawer, shuffling through the paper money as I counted the bills. There was just enough to pay Bruno my rent, but then I’d have none left over.
Shoving the money in my pocket, I crawled back out the window onto the fire escape.
Bruno could wait a few more days until I got my next military pension check.
I needed that money right now more than he did.
I stopped and turned to face the familiar voice calling my name.
Nate was standing on the stoop to the front door of my apartment building, the dirty swinging glass door still held open by one of his hands. I paused at the corner of the building where I’d come out of the alley, seriously considering whether or not to turn and walk away.
But I knew my ex, and he knew I’d seen him, so he’d only chase me down.
While I waited for him to jog over to me, I reached in my jacket pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and my Zippo, lighting one while my former husband scowled and closed the distance. His long coat didn’t hide the suit beneath, and I absently wondered just what kind of meeting he’d come from or was headed to. Maybe a meeting with the police commissioner. Not that I cared anymore. His career advancement had ceased to matter to me a long time ago.
When he’d reached me, his hand swung out to knock the cigarette from my mouth, but I deflected his hand automatically.
“I take it you don’t want one,” I told him as I blew out a long smoky exhale.
“Those things will kill you,” he fired back.
That actually did bring a morbid smile to my face.
“Wouldn’t want to do anything dangerous now,” I laughed. “Always lived such a safe life before this cigarette.”
He glanced away uncomfortably. “You look like shit.”
Nate knew I hated the pity in his eyes, but that averted gaze said the same thing, so I continued down the street while I drew in another inhale of the pungent smoke.
“You always were such a damned charmer,” I drawled.
He hurried to catch up with me. “Come on, Lane. What the hell are you doing? You look like you slept in your clothes, your eyes are bloodshot, and your pores are leaking Scotch.”
“Vodka,” I corrected. “You’d think after seven goddamned years of marriage you’d remember what I prefer to drink.”
He gave a frustrated huff as he ran a hand through his hair carefully styled brown locks. “Whatever. It doesn’t matter. You smell like a distillery. And when the hell did you start chain smoking? It was bad enough when you smoked the occasional cigarillo. Are you trying to slowly kill yourself?”
I laughed darkly but didn’t slow my stride. “Cigarettes are cheaper than cigarillos, and smoking calms my nerves.” I stopped to face him, my ex nearly skidding to match my sudden halt. “And if I do decide to kill myself, you asshole, you can damn well bet I’m not going to go about it slowly,” I angrily told him, jabbing a finger at his chest to punctuate my words.
He held up his hands in surrender, but his face drew into a mask of concern.
“You’re not going to do anything stupid, are you, Lane?”
I let out a disgusted snort. “Why? Your little conscience still worried about my fate? Don’t. What happens to me is no longer any of your concern. We’re not married anymore, so you don’t have to feel guilty about me now. Just run along back to your little wife.”
Spinning on my heel, I began angrily stalking away. But Nate never did know when to leave things alone.
“Dammit Lane, that’s not fair and you know it. I don’t worry about you because I feel guilty, I worry about you because we both still care about you,” he argued as he caught up to me.
At least he knew better now than to mention her name. Bad enough that my husband had cheated on me and ditched me the first chance he got, but I’d never forgive her for sleeping with and then marrying her best friend’s husband. Some things should just be below any kind of friendship and any kind of woman.
He huffed again when I merely ignored him and continued walking. “At least let me buy you breakfast and talk, Lane, I’m guessing you haven’t eaten anything today. You look like you’ve been drinking your meals again anyway,” he said as he grabbed my elbow to pull me to a stop. I jerked it away but did stop to face him.
“Because I’d like to sit and talk. Try to figure out what the hell you’re doing with your life,” he answered.
“Because of guilt,” I stated.
“Dammit, not because of guilt, because I still care about you and what you’re doing to yourself.” But as he spoke, his eyes wouldn’t quite meet mine.
I stepped closer and pointed at his chest, my gaze seeing the slight dilation of his pupils. “Look me in the eyes and tell me you don’t keep coming around because you feel guilty about sleeping with my best friend even before that last time I was shipped out. And tell me you don’t feel guilty about marrying her less than two months after they declared me dead.”
Silence hung between us. And he still couldn’t meet my eyes.
“I wanted children,” he whispered. “You didn’t.”
Stepping back, I threw my arms out wide. “Well congratulations! You got three of the little brats and I got four years in Hell. Came out one ahead of you in the score, didn’t I?”
“Jesus,” he raggedly sighed.
We stood like that for another few moments.
“I do still care about you,” he insisted, visibly steeling himself and meeting my gaze. “Just let me buy you breakfast and talk.”
I could lie and tell myself that I was going to have breakfast with him because he really did still care. I could even lie and tell myself that I was letting him buy me breakfast since I couldn’t remember when the last real meal I had was.
But the truth buried deep down was that I was letting him buy me breakfast because I was so lonely for company, I wouldn’t even turn down company that came from a man I mostly despised.
“Fine,” I replied. “There’s a little diner just down the block that serves breakfast all day. Hopefully you won’t mind their coffee too bad.”
Turning, I silently led the way.
We mostly ate in silence. Nate asked about why I’d stopped going into the call center, but I’d simply replied that I hadn’t liked the job. He offered to get me a different one, but I didn’t want to go down that path again.
“If you’d just clean up your act, I bet I could even get you a job at the department. A desk job wouldn’t be so bad, or maybe you could pass the physicals well enough to at least be out on dispatch,” he offered.
I ignored it like I always had. I wasn’t interested in explaining that I’d already been a cop once or trying to find where Mike was. He was the only partner I could imagine having again.
“What’s Doctor Whitesell say about you losing this job?” Nate asked.
“Nothing,” I answered as I polished off my omelet and picked up my last piece of toast. “He signed off on my paperwork. I’m free and clear of him.”
Nate’s eyebrows shot up as he swirled the coffee-like swill in his cup. “He signed off on your case? He really thinks you’re ready to stop therapy?”
“Sure. Don’t I look like it?”
He snorted and leaned back in his side of the booth. “You always were damn convincing when you wanted to lie and make someone believe something. Too damn smart for your own good.”
I mimicked his body language, leaning back and crossing my arms. “Pot calling the kettle black I’d say. I seem to remember believing you when you said you’d only ever love me.”
His hands shot up in surrender again. “Enough. Enough. I’m tired of having this same fight with you and I’m tired of apologizing. It’s done and I can’t take it back. I’m just saying that it seems pretty obvious that you should still be seeing him.”
“Why?” I angrily bit out. “It’s every other American’s God given right to drink themselves into stupors. Why the hell should that squat little turtle get to tell me what I can and can’t do? You either. You’re not my husband anymore.”
He slapped a hand down on the table. “Dammit, Lane! I feel like all I ever do is argue in circles with you. I’m tired of watching you destroy your life. Is it the delusions again? Is that it?”
I leaned over the table and lowly ground out. “Well it ain’t your job to hang around any longer. No one’s forcing you to watch.”
Standing, I yanked my jacket back on and began striding past the booth, only to be stopped by Nate’s hand on my arm.
“What is it you want out of life, Lane? What is it that even keeps you getting up in the morning?” he asked in desperate tones.
I paused, and found myself answering almost against my will. “To be free of this world. To find a way out of here. That’s the only thing that keeps me hanging on.”
Shaking off his grip, I silently strode out of the diner.
“You’re sure you don’t know of any way or any spell to send people to other worlds? Other dimensions?”
The old lady shook her head. Dropping the heavy Welsh accent she’d had before, she said in clear Midwestern tones, “Look, spells and magic like that just aren’t real.” She gestured around her magic shop. “This is all for tourists, honey. You’re obviously a smart enough woman to realize that, and I can see the desperation in your eyes, so I’m not going to lie to you and sell you trinkets like I do the tourists. You need to give this obsession up.”
My eyes narrowed as I took an angry step back. “I’m sick of everyone telling me what’s real and what isn’t. I know it was real. And I just need to find a way back to that world.”
She shook her head again, her gray wispy hair swinging around her face. “You’re old enough to know better, girl. This world is it. Stop this foolish, desperate search. Magic isn’t any more real than all those other notions you have about fairies or other dimensions. Stop looking and wasting your time.”
She turned and walked back into the back part of her shop before I could stop her or argue further. So I turned and walked back out into the cold once more.
Dejectedly walking out of yet another supposed magic shop, I pulled the crumpled Yellow Page papers from my hip pocket and crossed another name off my list. I’d scoured through the listings trying to find just one that wasn’t full of charlatans. Just one that had actual real magic and wasn’t full of cheap tricks for the naïve and tourists. But so far, I was coming up empty.
I couldn’t even find the old gypsy woman who had initially cursed me and caused me to end up in another world. It was almost as if she’d vanished. Or never existed. But I knew she had. She had to be out there somewhere. Or at least someone else who could do what she did.
Again walking down the street, a bar next to my latest bust caught my eye. I considered continuing my search, but it had been a long day. And the sun was just setting. What would it hurt to go in and get just one beer to warm up?
It was a lie. I knew that much. One would turn into several, until either my cash was gone or the bartender would serve me no more, or until welcome oblivion greeted me once more. But that oblivion was so tempting, and so I stuffed the Yellow Page ads back in my pocket and stepped inside the stale air of the bar.
Several shots and a few beers into my night, a woman sat down at the bar beside me. I’d chased several men away with no more than the dead stare my eyes held, but a woman sitting beside me was a first.
Still, she held no interest for me, so I signaled the bartender for another shot. He eyed me warily, and I knew he was gaging how many more he’d let me have.
“You have a bad war?” the woman asked next to me.
I glanced at her, wondering how she even knew I had been military.
She pointed an olive toned finger at my chest. Following the gesture, I saw my dog tags resting outside my shirt.
“Something like that,” I told her, lifting my shirt to shove the dog tags back under it.
“Your service was honorable,” she insisted. “It’s too bad you’ve come back so damaged. You should have faith in yourself.”
My eyes tracked back to her again, only to find her penetrating eyes staring at me as though she saw right through me. Or worse, that she saw into me and all that I was. Her olive skin tone was clear and unmarked, making her age hard to peg. And unruly dark curls of hair flowed all around her. She seemed almost Gypsy-like, but maybe that was just the booze clouding my eyes.
“Faith is lost. Honor is dead,” I quietly told her, averting my eyes from that too knowing gaze.
“When faith is lost, when honor dies, the man is dead,” she spoke, and I glanced back at the familiar words.
“Maybe I should be,” I told her. “Everything’s gone. I have nothing here. This world has no place for me.”
“Let not the land once proud of him, insult him now,” she almost coyly rejoined.
My shot glass slammed down on the bar top. “What the hell?” I demanded.
Her smile softened. “I thought you recognized the poem. You almost quoted part of it. It’s from Ichabod by John Greenleaf Whittier.
I stood so fast my barstool tipped over and rolled away from me.
“Who?” I croaked.
“John Greenleaf Whittier. The poet. I thought you recognized it.” Her face was puzzled at my sudden outburst.
“Greenleaf,” I repeated, my eyes closing against the pain. “I do recognize it,” I added, realizing I had indeed spoken those words so similar to the poem. Had my mind recognized it? Had my mind been feeding me these little bits of familiar pieces all along?
Had everything just been a trick of my mind?
I dug in my pocket and threw a wad of bills on the bar. But the woman grabbed my arm as I turned to leave.
“Are you going to be alright?” she asked, worry etching lines in her face. “I didn’t mean to upset you. You just seemed lonely and lost. I just wanted to see if I could help you or offer a little friendly conversation.”
I turned back towards her, feeling a tear spill over my cheek. “You did help me,” I told her. “You made things clearer,” I added, pushing past her and out onto the snowy sidewalk.
Einstein had once said, “A question that sometimes drives me hazy: am I or are the others crazy?”
Was that really the truth? After years of searching for a way back to that world, after years of my mind insisting it had been real. Was I really the one that was crazy, and not them?
I stumbled my way down the sidewalk, not knowing in what direction I was headed. And not really caring.
If I had thought I was broken before, it was nothing compared to what I was now. I’d lost the last piece I’d been holding on to.
A/N: This one is the more tragic, but probably more realistic ending. I know it’s not happy and somewhat leaves things unresolved, but that’s just the nature of this ending.