Saddling up at the bar, I shot Al a text to let him know I was there and waited on the bartender to make his way down to where I was sitting to place my order. It was the middle of the week, but the steakhouse was packed, so I doubted we’d be getting a table any time soon.
He’d already let me know he was running late, which was just as well since I was still lost in my own head over everything that had happened earlier that day.
Secret government facilities in the middle of nowhere, housing/imprisoning an albeit strange and yet unimposing young woman, who had some freaky ability to…what?
See into the future?
See into the present, but from a distance?
The fuck was I supposed to do with that?
It felt like I’d walked into the middle of a bad mystery novel.
The hairs on the back of my neck had been standing up ever since I’d left Uncle Jack’s side. Too freaked out to sit still, I’d gone for a walk around the city instead, hoping to burn off some of the nervous energy I’d built up.
It took the edge off – some – but I was still feeling a little antsy even now.
But I was soon jostled out of my thoughts – literally – when the person sitting at my side accidently knocked into me and I looked up to see a striking brunette looking back at me with an apologetic expression, as she said, “I’m so sorry.”
Then gesturing to the crowd surrounding us, she added, “That’s the third time I’ve nearly been knocked off of this stool tonight.”
I hadn’t noticed her when I first sat down, just that both sides of the bar stool I sat on had been occupied. But looking at her now, I could see she was attractive.
And once upon a time, I may have acted on it, but now…
Even if I hadn’t still been sorting through the baggage leftover from my deployment, after everything that had gone down that day, I wasn’t in the right headspace to do much more than smile back at her and say, “It’s fine. No harm, no foul.”
“Well, the least I can do is buy you a drink,” she smiled in return, with a look I recognized.
She was interested.
Shuffling some of the chess pieces around in my mind, I tried to imagine a few moves ahead and quickly came to the conclusion that a one night stand – much less anything else – just wasn’t going to happen.
I had Googling to do when I got back to my room and nothing was going to stop me from doing it.
Not even a gorgeous brunette.
But I didn’t want to be a dick, so I smiled softly as I shot her down with, “Thanks, but I’m good. I’m just waiting on my friend.”
“Me too,” she shrugged in return, while she looked over the crowd. “But I’m starting to think she stood me up.”
If her friend was as good looking as her, it wouldn’t have surprised me in the least if Al had run off with her and left me sitting there waiting on his sorry ass.
But saying something like that –while true – would have given her the wrong idea. And if I was being honest with myself, the only ideas I had were of the government conspiracy theory variety.
Looking at her some more, I couldn’t decide if it was my already antsy emotional state or not, but something about her felt off to me. I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly it was, but rather than sit there some more and drive myself even more batshit, I decided to remove myself from the situation by getting up and saying, “I hope she turns up. Have a good night.”
It was only a few minutes later that Alcide showed up, but he waited until we were seated and served to start in with what was really on his mind that night.
“So…”Al drawled out, breaking me out of my momentary stupor to look up and see him peering at me over the fork held in front of his face. “You’re gonna make me ask, aren’t you?”
“What?” I asked in return.
Still lost in my own head ever since I’d left Uncle Jack’s side that afternoon, I knew I wasn’t the best company right now, but we’d already made plans to meet up for dinner the night before, or else I would likely be back in my hotel room, Googling the shit out of paladin.
Even so, I didn’t need psychic abilities to know what he was talking about.
Even if I wasn’t quite sure I knew what I would be talking about because the more time I spent away from their paladin prison, the less real any of it felt.
That only meant it was all the easier for me to play stupid.
But stupid was a look on me he likely recognized well – being my pseudo-brother from the age of four – so he didn’t buy into my bullshit and just stared me down, asking, “Are you gonna spill on what the old man wanted to see you for or what?”
Shoving another piece of steak into my mouth, I need the added time to figure out what I could possibly say.
Your dad is a part of a government conspiracy straight out of a Tom Clancy novel?
He’s an accessory after the fact in the kidnapping and illegal imprisonment of some freaky little thing named Sookie?
Oh hey! Remember that time I found Janice in her bedroom closet and we all had nightmares for weeks? I got to see sketches of it all today, so bye bye sleep?
Never mind everything else she could supposedly do – and had supposedly already done.
Thwarted assassinations, terror plots, and worldwide pandemics?
It all sounded more dreamt up than the right side of my brain could wrap around.
Or, the left side of my brain kept telling me so.
While I was sure Al’s security clearance was still valid – likely higher than mine at the moment – I was also sure that technically I shouldn’t even be aware of all that I’d learned that day.
Not that it was much.
But I knew without a doubt he wasn’t cleared for any of it either, no matter how little I actually knew.
And I also knew without a doubt I couldn’t talk about it either.
Seeing he was still waiting on an answer, the only thing I could come up with was a nonverbal reply in the form of a small shrug of my shoulders, before shoveling more food into my mouth.
So that’s what I did.
“Seriously?” he asked incredulously and then mockingly repeated my lame ass shrug. “That’s all you’re gonna give me?”
“I can’t talk about it, Al,” I sighed out before meeting his eyes and adding truthfully, “But I really wish I could.”
If there was anyone I wanted to talk to about the fuckedupness of the day’s events, it was Alcide. But it was bad enough that I could possibly end up in Leavenworth.
I wasn’t going to drag him there with me, no matter how great of a cellmate he would be.
He continued to chew over my words, while he chewed on another piece of steak. But it wasn’t until he relented with a grin – in an overly exaggerated way that allowed me to see the masticated piece of meat in his mouth – that I knew he was going to drop the subject.
“Asshole,” I chuckled.
“Like is drawn to like,” he chuckled in return before raising his beer glass and tapping it against mine, signaling all was well between us.
I couldn’t handle another upheaval in my life.
Later on that night I tossed and turned in my hotel room bed, unable to shut my mind off enough to fall asleep. But it wasn’t the threat of my old nightmares returning that kept me awake.
It was everything else – or rather someone else – that kept me hyper alert.
Who was she really?
Where was she from?
Had she really stopped all of those awful things from happening or had it all just been coincidence and luck?
But coincidence and luck could only get you so far and they had nothing to do with the sketches she’d made, of a time and place she hadn’t been at and couldn’t have possibly known about.
I was half tempted to throw the covers off and go back to my laptop, but I already knew how fruitless my search for answers would be. In addition to Googling the shit out of paladin once I’d returned to my room, I’d also Googled the only other thing I could to try and get some answers.
Sookie – if that was even her real name.
But nothing about the day had seemed real and being given a false name would have been the least of it all.
What bothered me more was the government’s role in however they acquired and then raised the woman known as Sookie, from the age of seven. Then there was the fact that black sites did indeed exist on American soil alongside the unverified claims of doomsday scenarios that did not exist.
Those same doomsday scenarios I was still trying to decide whether or not to believe they would’ve come true, never mind the fact she somehow played an instrumental role in them not coming to fruition. Or that they could’ve happened at all.
Nothing going through my head on a continual loop was giving me much comfort.
But I’d hoped that the name Sookie was unique enough to lead me somewhere. A missing person’s report maybe or a goddamn milk carton with her picture on it, but it got me exactly nowhere.
I could’ve searched the hotel’s room service menu and come up with just as much information on her.
By the time the first rays of dawn began filtering through the windows, I knew sleep was a lost cause for the moment and got up to get a run in on the hotel gym’s treadmill before getting ready for the day.
Deciding I would feel a lot more comfortable in my civilian clothes, I hadn’t bothered with putting on my uniform and – quite frankly – I dared anyone to say a goddamn word about it.
I’d still been riding high on the fuck it wave, it would seem.
I had agreed to return to talk with Sookie some more, but not because I surely would have been ordered to. Nor was it because I was still curious about her, although I was sure my curiosity factored into my decision from somewhere in my subconscious mind.
But the actual conscious reason I’d agreed to go back was because she’d asked me to.
It was as simple as that.
But with the all too brief amount of time I’d been away from the black site, then combined with my sleep deprived state, when I was picked up in front of the hotel by the same driver as the day before, I’d managed to convince myself that I had likely remembered it differently. That maybe I’d had some sort of crazy ass episode where the lines between reality and fantasy were blurred.
The culmination of watching one too many Jason Bourne movies and eating a questionable gas station burrito I’d had for lunch the day prior.
Both would have explained the weird sensation roiling around my gut when I’d walked back to my hotel after dinner with Alcide.
Among other things, it felt like I was being followed.
I didn’t have any Bourne-like qualities that would have allowed me to know the fighting capabilities of anyone I’d passed, the best place I could’ve gone looking for a weapon, or the license plates of any of the cars on the street, but all of that just reiterated my working theory.
That I was being completely irrational and a bit idiotic, if I was being honest with myself.
Like the thought of the government squirreling away a civilian and treating her like a science experiment for the majority of her life.
Also irrational and completely idiotic.
So maybe I’d misunderstood Uncle Jack’s confirmation from the day before. Maybe she was a bit touched in the head and she’d misunderstood, thinking she’d been in their custody from the time she was seven, when in all actuality she’d been with them for seven months.
Whatever the reality was, I was almost positive it couldn’t have been what I’d imagined it all to be, so I settled into the backseat, nearly positive nothing was as bad as it had seemed. But pulling up to the paladin prison a short while later made an eerie feeling descend over me, with my trip to the land of denial feel like it was drawing to a close.
The car came to a stop, with the driver passing me an ID badge, just as one of the guards met me at the car door and silently gestured for me to follow him, as he escorted me to the elevator. It all seemed a bit cloak and dagger, but what bothered me the most was the fact I still couldn’t figure out if they were guarding Sookie or keeping her contained.
She was a slip of a girl in comparison and – the ability to see into the future and beyond privacy glass walls aside – appeared to be as passive as they came, so I guessed it was the former.
Or maybe it was hope.
I hoped they were guarding her over keeping her a prisoner.
Stepping out of the elevator and into the stark white hallway of the black site, I quickly sifted through the little bit I’d been able to learn on my own.
A paladin was supposedly a warrior devoted to kindness and ridding the world of evil. They were religious, with a strict code of honor, and defeating one with a cause was nearly impossible.
It explained – sort of – why none of those awful scenarios I’d read in the file I wasn’t cleared to read hadn’t come true, if everything else I’d initially inferred was true. So I could only guess they all believed that she had somehow foreseen their possibility and managed to stop them in time.
I couldn’t know for sure – anything, really – but when I was greeted by Doctor Brass Balls as soon as I walked into their underground bunker, the first thing that popped into my head flew right through any filters I should I have had in place and out of my mouth.
“I would like to take Sookie outside today.”
Everything about the place was stark, sterile, and cold. If what Uncle Jack said was true, and he wanted me to be able to gain her trust enough to open up to me about whatever it was that was bothering her, then I needed for her to feel comfortable enough to do that.
How could she when it seemed like the entire facility was built around watching her?
Never mind that it gave me the creeps.
Seeing how pale her skin was the day before had bothered me. If it was true that she’d been in their custody from the age of seven – added to the fact they treated her as some kind of lab rat for their own benefit – it admittedly pissed me off.
So, if it was true that she’d saved the lives of the president, countless civilians, and the world’s population as a whole, the least they could fucking do was reward her with some yard time.
“I would like to be able to reach the top shelf of my kitchen cabinets without needing a stool,” she replied without missing a beat. “That isn’t going to happen either, so emulate me and just live with it.”
I really didn’t like her.
But not knowing just how far I could push things yet – Doctor Brass Balls had already made it perfectly clear the day before she didn’t appreciate my presence in their whatever it was they were doing there – I let it slide for now and made a mental note to push the issue with Uncle Jack later on.
But all thoughts fled me when I walked further into the room and got a glimpse of what I suspected really went on there.
The wall of monitors which had been dark the day before were lit up. Twenty-four hour news stations played on some, while a mishmash of what looked like surveillance photos and mug shots flashed on the rest.
Seated in the chair I’d glimpsed the day before in front of it all was Sookie.
The restraints dangled freely from the sides, so I squashed the urge to pull her out of it and instead watched her watching the screens in front of her.
She didn’t appear to be focused on any of them in particular and instead her eyes traveled from one screen to the next. A notebook sat in her lap and a pencil was held loosely by her fingertips, but I could see from where I stood that the page was blank.
None of the other lab coats acted as though the sight in front of them was anything out of the ordinary, but having no clue what was going on, I quietly asked Doctor Brass Balls, “What is she doing?”
Between the stark surroundings and the detached temperaments everyone seemed to have, it was no wonder Sookie had eventually shut down.
And while I knew I didn’t stand a chance in hell of breaking her out, that didn’t mean I couldn’t push the as yet undefined boundaries of what I could do.
So I walked with purpose past all of them, with a small part of my mind cataloging the stiffening of postures of those around me at my actions, but I ignored them all and kept moving until I was standing right in front of Sookie.
Smiling down at her, I infused my voice with a warmth I didn’t really feel until that very moment, and greeted her with, “Morning, Sunshine.”
The distance in her eyes immediately disappeared and was replaced with a kind of gratitude, as her lips turned up in a small smile when she replied, “Good morning, Eric.”
The long unused part of me that had once been charming – if not flirty, in nature – made an appearance, with my smile remaining in place as my eyes took her in, while I gestured to the screens behind me with a small jerk of my head and said, “Couldn’t decide on a channel?”
“Something like that,” she admitted with a small frown.
While there was still a sense of otherness about her, she was undoubtedly human in nature. Anyone could see that something was bothering her and yet no one seemed to care enough to do anything to help her.
I felt myself getting pissed off again on her behalf.
Or rather, more.
I was getting more pissed off.
Holding my hand out towards her, I offered, “There’s nothing good on anyway, so why don’t we get out of here?”
I knew we couldn’t ‘get’ any farther away than her room, but it was better than staying there in front of the lab coat minions.
But instead of saying anything, Sookie merely stared at my hand in wonder for a moment, making me believe that no one had ever offered to help her out of a chair.
But instead of thinking chivalry really was dead, my thoughts scattered hearing her finally stutter out, “You…no one…touching…it uh…”
No one was in a hazmat suit and she wasn’t in any sort of bubble, so I didn’t think she had some sort of contagion or virus.
But thinking maybe she had some sort of aversion to touching anyone, I began to pull my hand back, with an apology already working its way up my throat, when it halted hearing her add, “No one touches me because I would be able to see their truths.”
“Their truths?” I questioned, admittedly questioning her sanity a little.
And my own when my proffered hand remained outstretched.
“My gift,” she nodded, looking more like it was her curse, and then added, “No one can hide from me if I’m touching them. Their secrets are laid bare before me. It can be…disconcerting for others.”
The way she’d said it made me believe it was sometimes disconcerting for both of them.
I had no idea what it all entailed. That she could read their minds of current thoughts? Past behavior? Future transgressions?
I didn’t even know for sure that I really believed any of it –in spite of the sketches I’d seen and everything Uncle Jack had told me. But in that moment, none of it mattered. The only thing that mattered was that she believed it.
Presumably, as did they, given the underground bunker we were currently in.
Considering there was really only one way for her – and them – to know that and for her to warn me of what could or would happen, I was equal parts angry and horrified at the thought of her being touch-starved from the age of seven.
Picturing a seven year old Sookie crying for a hug that no one would give her made me see red.
There was no way for me to know if my suspicions were true without asking her or them, but I didn’t waver, even if a small part of me wondered for a moment if what I was about to do was the right or wrong thing.
But either or, I left the decision up to her when I resolutely left my hand out in front of her and said sincerely, “I won’t take offense if you say no, but I have nothing to hide.”
My peripheral once again noted we had everyone’s interest –beyond the fact we were on display in front of them all – but I dismissed their presence just the same.
As far as I was concerned, it was just the two of us there.
It seemed, as far as she was concerned, only my hand was there, given she couldn’t seem to take her eyes from it. But eventually her gaze met mine as she hesitantly asked, “You’re sure?”
If I believed in what Uncle Jack had called her predictive artwork, then she’d already seen a good portion of the worst memories I had. There were others, of course. My father’s death beyond that and my own near death experience with the aftermath that followed, but nothing more that couldn’t be found in a thorough background check.
If anything, it would save me the trouble of having to talk about any of it in the future, if she could see it all for herself now.
But just thinking it had me pulling my hand back a bit. Not that I truly believed in what she could supposedly do, but on the off chance I was wrong…
Did I really want her see my nightmares too?
It didn’t seem fair to add onto her already heavy burden.
I knew from the little bit Uncle Jack had shared before we’d parted ways the day before that the sketches of me weren’t the only things in her portfolio, but all it had taken was for him to see those to make him a believer. He’d only been read into the project a couple of months earlier, when he’d taken the post of Vice Chairman, so all of it was still settling in for him too.
Drawing whatever she’d gleaned was nothing new from her and everything she drew was analyzed and catalogued by her handlers. It was how he’d known the ones of me were drawn on the same day everything had happened.
It was reading the transcripts of a conversation between her and one of their lab coat minion’s about the drawing that made him decide to call me to D.C.
At the time, she’d told them we’d made a connection. I guessed it was a big deal back then, but she couldn’t tell them my name or where I was. No one had said it during the brief window she’d been able to see me. And with it all happening before the days of social media and the like, they hadn’t been able to track me down either.
The cat was probably out of the bag now, if they’d been monitoring everything we’d said and done in her room the day before. But I’d gone over the previous day’s events a thousand times and yet I still couldn’t make sense of any of it. The fact she’d drawn sketches of a teenage me – on a day when I’d inexplicably run up to Janice’s room for no other reason than I’d felt like I had to – had my thoughts straying to the unbelievable.
Thoughts made even more implausible by Sookie’s own words.
That I’d heard her.
But I hadn’t. In spite of her declaration that I was the only one to have ever heard her, I didn’t remember hearing anything that day. It was why the fact I’d bolted up the stairs and into her room, only to find Janice in her closet, was all the more mindboggling.
Something had urged me to run up there. I’d known it then, even if I hadn’t known what it was.
But could it really have been at Sookie’s behest?
And, if so, then what in the hell did that make her?
A psychic? A mind reader?
Maybe a little of both?
I’d been fifteen at the time, so Sookie couldn’t have been more than eleven or twelve years old.
If she was a psychic and those were the kinds of things she saw on a regular basis, then it was no wonder her eyes seemed older beyond her years.
But none of that explained how she’d known my name when I tried to introduce myself to her the day before.
Had she’d always known and withheld the information from those surrounding her or had she seen more of me later on and not mentioned it?
Just another question I wanted an answer to on top of the other billion or so.
When he’d seen the sketches for himself, Uncle Jack had recognized me right away, but he hadn’t told any of them I was the same boy from the drawings, telling me he didn’t want me to be subjected to whatever it was they were doing to her.
I suspected a lot of his motive stemmed from not wanting Janice drawn into the mix too.
He wouldn’t tell me any more than that though, still believing I would somehow do whatever it was he thought I should do if I learned everything else on my own.
Seeing she was still tentatively waiting on my reply before deciding what to do, I nodded at her with a small smile and wiggled my fingers at her, saying, “I’m game if you are.”
Everything that happened next seemed to happen in slow motion. Everything in the room seemed to stop, with no one other than Sookie moving a muscle, as she slowly – hesitantly – reached for my hand.
So it was, without a doubt, the most anticlimactic moment of my life when her hand finally landed in mine and nothing happened.
Well, nothing other than a fresh infusion of the aroma of cherry blossoms filling my nose again.
But that I could reason away, if I tried really hard, so I dismissed it as a ‘been there done that’ kind of deal and just stared down at her to see her reaction.
I couldn’t really tell what Sookie was feeling – her expression was completely blank – but I was still feeling a residual amount of pissed off on her behalf at the thought they all treated her like a leper.
So I automatically turned to face the stunned minion’s and said, “You’re all assholes.”
Then keeping her hand in mine, I tugged on it a little to pull her along behind me as I walked us back to her room and shut the door behind us. I knew they were more than likely monitoring everything we would do and say, but at least it gave us the illusion of privacy.
And at the moment, the illusion was the only thing I could give her.
She still hadn’t said a word, but she hadn’t attempted to free herself from my grasp, so I kept ahold of her hand and just waited.
And the longer I waited, the more I was convinced that there was a reasonable explanation for whatever gift/curse they all believed she had.
I would just need to convince them of that, so she could be freed.
At least, that was what was going through my mind. All the way up until she looked up at me and said in the smallest voice imaginable, “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” I asked, barely loud enough to be a whisper.
With her mouth turned down, she sadly replied in barely an exhalation of air through her lips, “Now you’re in danger too.”