“What?” I asked, with single worded questions quickly becoming my unintentional forte.
But I had no idea what paladin even meant, so the fact she was apparently it just confused me even more.
Uncle Jack made no effort to respond and instead entered the room through the door at our side, so I grudgingly followed him through it, even though it felt like we were intruding. I was only further confused by the immediate scent of cherry blossoms surrounding me yet again, when we were well away from any cherry blossom trees.
As if Uncle Jack had become a mind reader since I’d last seen him, he leaned towards me and whispered, “What do you smell?”
“I’m sorry?” I questioned just as quietly, unable to wrap my head around any of it.
“Smell,” he reiterated and explained, “Whenever I’m near her I smell cinnamon. It reminds me of the cinnamon rolls my grandmother used to make from scratch every Sunday morning when I was growing up.”
“Cherry blossoms,” I heard myself say, wondering which one of us had an undiagnosed brain tumor that was playing tricks with our olfactory senses.
I caught sight of him nodding in my peripheral, just as he replied, “It’s different for everyone.”
Were brain tumors contagious?
They must have been because everyone there likely had one if they all imagined smelling different scents in her presence.
And I must not have had a lick of sense for sticking around instead of trying to make my escape before the crazy could infect me any more than it already had.
The warehouse probably sat on some hazardous landfill and the chemicals had seeped into all of their brains, making them smell cinnamon buns and cotton candy and whatever in the hell else they all thought they smelled.
All of them.
My previous list of questions had grown to rival the length of War and Peace, but I held them all in, not wanting to disturb the silence of the room any more than we already had.
She hadn’t taken her eyes off of me. I knew because I hadn’t stopped staring into hers either. The vibrancy of their color was almost ethereal and stood out even more thanks to how pale her skin was. Not in a sickly kind of way though.
She was pale in way that something told me it had been a very long time since she’d been out in any sunlight.
Even not knowing the circumstances behind any of it, that didn’t stop me from becoming pissed off on her behalf. But she didn’t seem to be sad or angry or anything really, so I couldn’t even begin to guess how she’d come to be there.
Not to mention, why.
The ensuing silence in the room was becoming uncomfortable, but I didn’t feel as though I should be the one to break it.
I wasn’t the four star general in the room or even the paladin – whatever in the hell that was – so I waited for one of them to break first.
Because not only did Uncle Jack break the silence first – he made a break for it too – by clapping me on the back before turning to leave the room and said, “Well, I’ll leave you to it then.”
“What?” I squawked, forgetting for a moment I wasn’t just talking to my pseudo-uncle, but I was a captain in the United States Air Force addressing the Vice Chairman to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Squawking – as a general rule – was unacceptable behavior to either man.
But it seemed it was my day to throw caution to the wind because when he kept heading for the door, I skittered after him and grabbed onto his arm, asking, “What am I supposed to do?”
He may have thought going in blind was the way for me to go, but I was having serious reservations about being left alone in a room with the paladin.
They kept her locked up in a black site for a reason. One I was blind to, so I had no idea if she was being protected or imprisoned.
Whatever their reasoning, I needed more of a reasonable explanation as to what I was expected to do.
Looking back at me, he ignored the fact I was clutching his arm for dear life and only said, “Tend the metaphorical bar.”
“Here?” I argued incredulously and gestured to the Twilight Zone setting, adding, “In a human fishbowl?”
Instead of cherry blossoms I wished I smelled scotch.
I could use a drink or ten, right about then.
But I was so far out of my comfort zone, I didn’t know up from down. Group therapy sessions were nothing like the situation I found myself in. Even one on one therapy sessions, where all of the focus had been on me, were less stressful and that sensation was ten times worse now that I was on the other side of the couch.
I don’t know how Doc Tucker could stand it.
Then again, I wasn’t the paladin and I knew anything we did or said in this room would likely be analyzed to the Nth degree by Doctor Brass Balls.
Reaching out, he patted the hand still holding onto his arm and said, “You’ll do fine, son. I’m not expecting any miracles today. Just get your feet wet, as it were, and see if you two get along.”
With that, he walked out of the room and shut the door behind him. I didn’t dare turn around just yet, needing to get my bearings first. But the longer I stood there, the more I felt like I was becoming claustrophobic.
A sensation that only increased when I noticed the privacy glass from within the room was mirrored, so it didn’t allow you to see out into the control center.
So how had she managed to look straight into my eyes when I’d been standing on the other side of it?
But seeing her reflection still staring at me, I shored up my nerves and slowly turned around to face her.
She didn’t appear demonic or possessed or whatever it was that would have her squirreled away in a military black site with armed guards. In fact, her size and stature were that of any young woman, so had I passed her on the street I know I wouldn’t have thought anything was odd about her.
That is, if I hadn’t taken the time to look into her eyes because in spite of her obvious youth, she seemed much older than her physical age.
I’d heard the expression of someone having ‘an old soul’, but it was the first time I truly believed I was seeing one.
There was an invisible weight she carried on her slender frame – a lifetime behind her eyes that belied her actual years on earth – no one her age should have.
“Hi,” I softly offered, figuring I could at least do some idle chit chat since I’d been ordered all the way to Washington D.C. to meet her.
She was still sitting back on her heels on the floor, so instead of standing there – thereby towering over her – I lowered myself to the floor a few feet in front of her and unbuttoned my uniform coat to give me some breathing room.
Nothing about this day was standard military fare, so I figured I was allowed a little leeway.
When her only acknowledgement to my greeting was a soft nod in my direction, I guessed she wasn’t ready to talk to yet. While this had been one of the strangest days in my life, I imagined it wasn’t any better for her.
What with a strange man being closed up in her bedroom.
And what a strange bedroom it was.
Not quite prison-esque, it wasn’t hospital grade either, but it seemed bare bones. A twin size bed sat against one wall, with a white coverlet draped over what I was sure were white sheets and a single pillow, and a small nightstand sat at its side. A small wooden desk and chair sat opposite it.
Other than the small woven throw rug she was kneeling on, the room had no other furnishings. Nothing hung on the walls, so rather than stare at her some more, my eyes went to the only other things in the room.
The books stacked on her nightstand.
My eyesight was perfect, so I was able to make out the titles. Some I recognized, others I did not.
The Bible and the Quran – those were easily identifiable.
The others were written in languages I couldn’t read, but something told me they were holy books for other religions.
Considering how many there were, she could possibly have them for all religions.
Having already heard she was religious, I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. I’d assumed she was singularly religious.
Now I wasn’t sure.
But then, nothing about the day had left me feeling surefooted, so it was par for the course.
And feeling her eyes still on me, I met them again and studied her for a moment before trying another tactic to get her to say something.
One my mother would have already smacked me for, for not doing it sooner.
“I’m…” I began to say, but stopped seeing her lips part.
And maybe my heart stopped too, when she finished for me by saying, “Eric.”
“How…” I choked out, thinking I should get it out now before my lungs stopped working too, while my mind quickly flipped back through everything that had been said since I’d stepped off of the elevator.
No one had addressed me by name.
I was sure of it.
But recalling Doctor Brass Balls chiding Uncle Jack about me being the demi god with the gift of gab, I reasoned she could have overheard them arguing about bringing me in, in the past.
It made sense.
If I squinted really hard and tuned out the blood roaring in my ears.
“And you are?” I eventually asked, once I was sure my voice would be steady.
Smiling softly, she tilted her head to one side and said, “Pleased to finally meet you.”
That went hand in hand with the idea she’d overheard Uncle Top Brass and Doctor Brass Balls arguing, so I didn’t delve further into that topic. But I felt a little more at ease now that she was talking and from her reply, I got the feeling that she had a sense of humor.
That would be helpful if I was going to get her to open up.
About what, I still didn’t know.
But thinking getting the basics out of the way first would be a good way to go, I asked, “What is your name?”
Instead she sent me into unknown territory by responding, “I am the paladin.”
“I don’t know what that means,” I answered truthfully.
Her eyes were nothing but kind, which flummoxed me since she was being housed like her last name was bin Laden, but I learned her first name wasn’t Osama when she said, “You can call me Sookie.”
Like paladin, I didn’t know what a Sookie was either, but now that she was on a roll with answering my questions, I didn’t dwell and asked, “What do you do here, Sookie?”
I was still holding out hope that this was a Think Tank of sorts and looking for confirmation.
Confirmation I didn’t get when she only replied, “Not much, as of late, I’m afraid.”
She seemed troubled by that, but not having any clue what that meant, I dug deeper by questioning, “Then what is it you normally do here?”
“I watch,” she replied after a long moment. “I listen.”
“To what?” I asked, not understanding anything she’d just said.
Almost imperceptibly her entire body sunk further into the hard floor she was still kneeling on, as though her burden had just gotten a little bit heavier.
Like the weight of the world was on her shoulders.
Her eyes had dropped down with her reply and she seemed lost in thought, so I didn’t say anything right away, while I tried to figure out on my own what in the hell was going on.
She watched. She listened.
Everything she’d said so far gave me nothing. Nothing at all.
It was remarkable how still she was, almost like a statue. My ass had long ago fallen asleep on the cold concrete floor and when I shifted to get a little circulation flowing again, the movement brought her eyes back to mine, so I used the opportunity to ask, “How long have you been working here?”
It was a more definitive question, so I was hoping I would get a definitive answer.
And I did.
One that I definitely wasn’t expecting.
“I was seven when the fates decided I was ready to begin the journey towards fulfilling my destiny,” she answered, like she was telling me something no more fantastical than her favorite color was blue.
But I only saw red.
My tone was low. It was incredulous.
But above it all, it was outraged.
I felt my hands clench into fists and my blood pressure spike, but what she’d just told me only fed into my suspicions that she hadn’t been let out into the sun in a very long time.
I’d just had no idea it had been that long.
Unless she’d Lizzie Borden’d her entire family at a young age, I didn’t see any just cause for keeping her locked up. But before I could act on any of it, she attempted to soothe me by saying, “It was always the path I was meant to be on.”
They brainwashed her.
It was the only logical conclusion.
That or she really was a loon and had only imagined she’d been in DARPA’s evil clutches for close to three quarters of her life.
“And what path is that?” I spit out, angry for her and angry that everything I had known – everything I had believed about both my country and my Uncle Jack – had just been blown apart.
So I didn’t know if it was my obvious anger or something else entirely, when she hesitantly answered, “I am no longer sure.”
So maybe she wasn’t so far gone in her brainwashing if she was coming to realize that it wasn’t right – downright criminal, if anyone asked me – that she was being used as…as…
Whatever in the fuck a paladin was.
“But,” she offered with more assurance in her tone, “I do believe you are meant to be on this path with me.”
“Excuse me?” I asked, feeling my eyebrows hit my hairline.
But instead of answering me, she seamlessly rose up to her feet and walked over to the desk. Opening the single drawer, she pulled out several pieces of paper and studied them for a moment before turning and walking towards me.
When she came to a stop, she was standing directly in front of me and I got my first hint at what had a seemingly innocuous young woman being secreted away in a military black site.
If Jackson Herveaux emanated power and authority, then she was positively thrumming with it, the likes of which I hadn’t ever experienced before.
The word otherworldly came to mind.
Which only proved I was clearly out of my depth – and maybe a little off my rocker for even thinking it – a likelihood only furthered along when the scent of cherry blossoms once again bloomed around me. But before I could even think about mentioning it, she handed the pages over to me and every thought fell out of my head.
Because it was me.
On the paper was a hand sketched drawing of me.
A younger teenage me, but I recognized myself immediately.
I recognized where I was too.
And flipping to the next sheet of paper, I saw teenage me in midstride, running up the stairs.
The next sheet of paper had me throwing open the bedroom door.
The final sheet was of Janice and me both, sitting on her bedroom floor.
“How do you have these?”
The words left my lips in barely a whisper, but she must have heard me because she answered with a simple, “I drew them.”
The pages were worn, as though they’d been drawn a while ago.
Years ago, I suspected.
“I don’t understand,” I admitted.
“But you did,” she whispered in a way that got me to tear my eyes away from my past and look up into her own. “You heard me,” she smiled softly. “You’re the only one that ever has.”
“I don’t understand,” I repeated.
Not a goddamn thing.
So I didn’t know what to think – what to believe about any-fucking-thing – hearing the confidence in her soft spoken tone, when she answered, “You will.”
Staring back at her, something in her expression told me she had complete and utter faith in me – a kind of faith I hadn’t ever possessed about anything – when she declared, “Soon you will understand everything.”
After being ushered out of the warehouse, with my feet moving on autopilot, I climbed into the waiting car and sat beside the man I knew as Uncle Jack, but no longer recognized, in a complete stupor, until a single thought tumbled through my lips unbidden.
“I don’t understand.”
And I didn’t.
Any of it.
“Don’t feel bad,” he answered tiredly. “It took me a while to wrap my head around it too.”
I still didn’t know what it was. What a paladin was or why our government had one locked up in a goddamn basement.
But more than anything, I wanted to know one thing, so I turned my accusing eyes towards him and asked, “Is it true? Has she been there since she was seven years old?”
I saw the answer in his eyes, well before he ever uttered it out loud, when he eventually replied, “That’s what the file indicates.”
“The file?” I snarled out. “She’s not a file! She’s a human being! She’s gotta be around Janice’s age, so how can you be okay with this?”
I knew without a doubt he would’ve gone Rambo on anyone and everyone had his daughter been taken away from him.
But that thought led me to wondering about her own family. Looking over at him, before I could ask about them – both wanting to know and afraid of the answer – I saw it wasn’t my Uncle Jack I was looking at anymore.
It was the Vice Chairman to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a four star general who stared back at me and barked, “That file you read on your way here. Do you remember anything that was in it?”
“Yes,” I snapped back at him.
I’d clearly reached the fuck it stage of my military career.
If my own government could keep someone like Sookie prisoner for most of her life, they could fucking dishonorably discharge me for all that I cared.
Going to Fiji and renting jet skis to tourists, until I was old and gray, sounded really good at the moment.
Eying me like I had a date with the gallows in my immediate future, he said, “The assassination of then President Bush at the 2001 World Series, when he threw out the opening pitch at Yankee Stadium. The New Year’s Eve bombing of Times Square in 2008 and the 2012 release of the chimeric bioweapon strain of the botulinum toxin that, when combined with the antidote, only became more lethal and wiped out eighty percent of the world’s population.”
When he simply stared at me, I fully embraced Throwing Caution to the Wind Day and threw back in his face, “Those things never happened!”
“No,” he sighed. “They didn’t.”
Then affixing his gaze onto my own, he said, “But they would have, if it wasn’t for her.”
Even though I still didn’t understand it all, his words managed to shut me up until we reached the Pentagon, when I looked at him and softly asked, “Everything?”
All of that would have somehow happened if it hadn’t been for the young woman who’d been imprisoned, for all intents and purposes, from the time she was seven?
Clearly shouldering his own portion of the weight of the world on his shoulders, he stared back at me and nodded, “Everything.”