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Extract: The Watcher’s Daughter

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I didn’t see weird flashes of light all the time.  Just sometimes, like when a migraine was coming on, or when work stress got the best of me.

Or, like now, when jackass truck drivers cut me off in heavy traffic on rainy Saturday mornings.

My car horn sounded like a cross between a bleating sheep and a dying cat, but I pushed it with all I had.  When the truck driver made eye contact in his mirror, I saw that strange flicker of green again, filling his cab.  I ignored it momentarily, stuck my middle finger out the window and waved.  He returned the gesture, like I’d done something to endanger his life, before gunning his engine and roaring further ahead.  I let him go.  Allie Stuart did not engage simple-minded morons in road rage games.  I returned my eyes to the road, the green flash still lingering at the corners of my vision.

No need to start showing off my own brand of crazy this early in the day. A couple of Tylenol should do the trick once I reached the nursing facility.    

My phone rang, the sound muffled by my purse, and it took a few rings’ worth of digging for me to find it.

“Hey beautiful.  What are you up to?” Colin’s voice was deep and rumbling, a combination that usually made my knees weak, but lately, something had changed.  My boyfriend of three years had seen me through some of the hardest times I’d experienced in my adult life, but I’d felt a distance between us the last few months.  I didn’t know the source of my frustration with our relationship, but I was growing desperate to find it.    

I pushed the thought away and tried to put a smile in my voice.  “On my way to Park Manor.  My morning sucked, and now I’m running late for my lunch date with Papa.”

The trucker was still ahead, but moving further ahead.  I calmed down with each car length that grew between us.  Colin’s warm voice helped that along, at least.

“Tell your grandfather I said ‘Hello’ when you see him.”

“I will.  I’ve been worried about him this week–he’s been saying some pretty crazy things on the phone, about my mother and how she died,” I said.  A car accident had taken my mother and stepfather ten years ago, but my grandfather’s ravings managed to break open the wound every time.  My grandfather’s Alzheimer’s was getting worse, and though I usually tried not to dwell on the things that came out of his mouth, his stories the past week had been too weird.  “He was ranting about them–saying they had been hunted–that she and David were killed and it wasn’t an accident.”

There was a long beat of silence on the other end of the phone.  “You know that’s not true, Allie.”

I bit my lip as I changed lanes and the pain distracted me from the tears welling in my eyes.  How much longer would I have to ride this roller coaster?  “So, what’s going on there?”

“They’ve scheduled one last meeting for today and I think we’re going to get a decision from the buyer.  It shouldn’t affect tonight.  I can fill Ben in on the details while I’m on the way back and I’ll be all yours by the time you get to my place.”

Colin’s business partner and best friend, Ben was meticulous about the details of their meetings, but he was usually pretty good about getting things done when Colin and I had plans.  We were meeting in New York to celebrate my thirtieth birthday, a day early, and I was excited for the distraction.  Maybe a night on the town, just the two of us, would kill two birds with one stone.  Get me out of my own funk and get us out of the funk we’d been in for the last couple months.    

“Well, I hope it works out.  It’d be huge for you and I won’t have to hear about it anymore.”

Colin laughed.  “I need to get going.  We’re all meeting for lunch before the meeting.”

“A pre-meeting meeting?”

“That’s business, baby.  I’ll see you later,” he said, his voice going soft at the end.

My mouth twisted into a small smile at the butterflies in my stomach.  His words seemed full of promise, and I couldn’t deny how badly I needed something–anything–to change.  “Alright, call me when you get into the city.”

“Love you,” he said, already starting to sound far away.

“Me too.”

***

Park Manor was a little over ten minutes from the town I’d grown up in, and was the best care facility I could afford.  I was lucky enough to have a close friend and colleague working as a physician at Park Manor, who’d bumped us up the waiting list.  Dr. Harding Fields had made the initial transition easy, and had even managed to earn a modicum of trust from my grandfather before his disease had ruined his ability to remember new people.

I’d been stricken by a load of old-fashioned Catholic Guilt as soon as he’d been moved in.  I figured it was a suitable homage to my grandmother, the woman who had instilled it in me so well. In the end, though, the move had been worth it.  The level of care my grandfather received at Park Manor far surpassed anything I could have provided him.

As I pulled the car into a parking spot a few rows back from the main building, I looked at the clock in my dash: 11:48. That gave me enough time to meet my grandfather and take him to lunch.  I wasn’t going to be late after all.  Finally, something was going right.

I crossed the parking lot, hunched against the drizzling rain, and stepped off the pavement onto the emerald green grass, hopping over blossoming puddles.  I earned a short reprieve as I passed under a copse of leafy, spring trees and made it to the door with minimal damage.

Thick Persian rugs and stately antique furniture decorated the lobby, making it look more like a hotel than a hospital.  Residents and staff alike were scattered throughout the room’s seating areas: clusters of chairs and couches dotted the room, creating little islands on the large, soft rugs.  Saturdays were busier than usual, as the ranks swelled to include visitors.  The aroma of strong coffee brewing at the corner sandwich stand wafted over to me and I longed for it. But I ignored my craving, determined not to be deterred, and strode to the reception desk.

“Hello, Allie.” The receptionist, Kara, granted me a wide smile.

“I didn’t know you’d be back so soon,” I said, grinning.  “How’s the baby?”

“We’re all doing great.” Her voice dropped and her eyes danced.  “He keeps his daddy on his toes.”

I laughed.  “Bet he wouldn’t give it up for anything.”

“Not for a million bucks.”  She beamed, and I decided the day might turn out right after all.  “So what can I help you with today?”

“Is my grandfather still upstairs, or has he come down for lunch?”

“I can find out,” she replied, smiling.  Kara punched a couple of numbers into the telephone.  “Hey, Sue.  It’s Kara.  Allie Stuart is here–” She waited, her mouth still open.  I watched as her sunny expression changed to one of worry.  “Alright, alright.  I’ll send her up.”

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“There’s been some kind of incident–she couldn’t really explain.  You should get up there.” Her voice was calm, but her eyes betrayed her.  The worry there sent me sprinting for the elevators.

After I jabbed the up arrow, I paced back and forth across the ceramic tile.  Dread flowered in my stomach, growing with each passing moment.  I ran through several possible scenarios–a nasty fall, an attack on a nurse, maybe even a code blue.  I halted my wild imagination and started counting.

Seventeen tiles.  Turn.  Seventeen tiles.  Turn.

I let out a growl of frustration and spun around, darting for the metal door marked “STAIRS.”

I first heard the commotion as my feet hit the landing between the third and fourth floors, and my chest constricted in panic.  I stormed up the remaining stairs and burst through the door on the fourth floor.

My grandfather stood at the nurse’s station, surrounded by five or six members of the staff and a few residents.  He brandished a cane like a great sword and paced the floor in front of the tall desk.

“There’s no reason for this!” my grandfather said.  He was agitated, possibly experiencing paranoia, and clearly in the middle of some kind of lecture.  I stared at him, trying to take in every detail of the situation.

I took a few careful steps, attempting to close the distance between us without alarming him or anyone else.  Ten steps and he still hadn’t seen me.  I was close enough to notice that his grey-blue eyes, the color same as mine, were bright with fear and excitement.

A young nurse named Sam approached my grandfather.  He held his hands out in front of him, palms up, as if my grandfather were some crazed dog.  “Sir, if you could calm down enough to tell us what happened…”

“I’ll TELL you what happened,” my grandfather cried, still waving around the mystery cane; his worsening illness had affected his coordination, but he certainly had no problems walking. The stripes on his pajamas made him seem taller and skinnier than usual.  His white-gray hair stood up all over his head, thick as the day he’d graduated high school, and looking as if he’d run his shaking hands through it more than once.

“That devil woman–” He stabbed the cane in the direction of a short, stout resident with iron gray hair, wearing thick glasses and a white cardigan sweater over her shoulders.  “That devil woman broke into my room and stole a plate of cookies.”

My mouth dropped open.  As far as I could see, she was the very picture of a sweet, elderly lady.  Even if she had stolen his cookies, which I highly doubted, this whole business with the cane seemed an overreaction at best.  At worst, this was the sort of episode that could get him thrown out of Park Manor for good.

“I did no such thing,” the old woman said, shaking her finger in my grandfather’s face.  “I brought you those cookies, you ungrateful old man.”

“Liar!  My wife baked me those cookies.”  He lunged at her, the cane in his other hand forgotten.  I watched in horror as he grabbed the old woman’s shoulder and shook her.

She slapped at his hand and pulled away from him.  “Julia’s long gone, Harold.  You’re getting crazier every day!”

Another primal scream issued from his throat and my blood pressure ratcheted up a few notches.

“Mr. Quinton, please settle down.  Your granddaughter will be here any minute and she’ll be able to explain–” said a middle-aged nurse with a sticky-sweet voice.  She tried to step closer to him, but my grandfather shrieked at the top of his lungs, the sound fierce and animalistic.  Everyone in the circle took a step back.

I figured it was my turn to give it a shot and took several steps forward.  Only a few feet separated us when he finally noticed me.  He let out another screech and swung the cane in a wide arc, missing me by inches.  My heart raced, but I held my ground, believing I was the only one who could get this under control.

“Papa, it’s me, Allie.  I understand there’s been a little confusion today, but I think we can figure out what’s going on.  Just give me your cane, and we’ll see if we can’t sort this out.”  I gave him a small smile, hoping my words would ground him.

In the background, I heard the elevator ding, but I kept my attention focused on my grandfather.  He stared at me, eyes wild, and I didn’t see a single flicker of recognition.  I shuffled toward him again and he flung the cane away, charging at me.  I dodged, but not soon enough.  Before I realized what had happened, his fingers clenched around my throat.

“It was you!  She’s gone because of you!”  His face was inches from mine.  I felt the heat of his breath on my face as flecks of spittle hit my cheeks.  Pure shock rushed through me as his fingers closed tighter, fingernails digging in, and my breath caught in my throat.  His grip was stronger than I expected, and it was a long moment before I tried to pull away from him.  I looked up at him, into eyes the color of blue steel, and felt hope slide away.  The grandfather that had read me books as a little girl, the grandfather that had given me rides to every soccer practice I’d ever had, was gone.

Strange currents of warmth and calm wafted through me, chasing thoughts of my grandfather away.  It began in my fingertips and work its way through the rest of my body like a weird electrical surge.  I gasped for air as my grandfather’s grip on my throat released.  The surge of oxygen rushed to my head and a savage burst of violet filled my vision.

“If everyone could take a step back.  Calm down.  No need for anyone to get upset,” a new voice said, cutting through cacophony of shouts and cries from the people surrounding us.  The warmth in my chest was joined by hope as the tension in the room slipped away.

I turned to my head to the right, toward the voice, and was conscious long enough to notice the strange look of concentration on the face of Harding Fields.  The last thing I felt was regret I’d neglected to take that Tylenol after all.

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