Chapter 1 – The Discovery
Two Years Ago - Monday, December 20th – 6:15 a.m.
The morning started out like any other inside the cramped area he’d called home for far too long. Everett’s old body rested atop the worn mattress—which was more like a hunk of concrete with an overlay of foam—inside a room no bigger than a small SUV.
Conditioned from years of rising early, Everett stared at the dark ceiling. Without the need of an external alarm clock, Everett woke up at precisely six-fifteen, just as he’d done since high school. A twinge of stiffness in his back made him groan while exiting the cot. Grabbing what he needed from the small closet, he unlocked the gray metal door and headed to the bathroom.
On autopilot, he showered, dressed, and walked alone down the twisting hallways to the lab. Everett stopped only once on his way at the makeshift cafeteria, grabbing some black liquid masquerading itself as coffee for breakfast.
He made it to his destination. Leaning down, he let the security system scan his retina and waited for the metal door to unlock. Once inside, he donned the white lab coat hanging on the back of his chair, took a swig of tepid coffee, and then made his way over to the rows of cages.
What he saw made the room spin, thus ending the comparison to any other day.
Everett couldn’t seem to remember how to breathe. Blinking proved to be just as difficult. Mouth agape, body rigid, and his butt securely stuck to the uncomfortable chair. A random thought of the time in kindergarten when Jimmy Fassler wiped superglue in Everett’s seat popped into his frazzled mind. Hands clammy and sweat pouring from every single gland, his visual cortex struggled to digest the images beaming in from the optic nerves.
Maybe the retina scanner fried my eyes?
Everett had spent ten long, grueling, and life-altering years since his first day at the facility. Eighty-seven thousand, six hundred hours and counting from the moment he’d been blindfolded and ushered inside the ultra-secret laboratory. He still didn’t really know where he was, or even if actually in the United States. Everett hadn’t been out of the compound since his arrival. All he knew was the location was a mile underground. Then again, was that even the truth? That’s what he’d been told in clipped, hushed tones while bound, unseen hands of his colleagues—captors as he referred to them inside his head—leading the way. Considering the installation and work was classified, he could be anywhere.
Everett’s stunned mind pulled up memories of the day he’d been hand-picked by the Director of Research, Dr. Roberta Flint. Out of the blue, and reasons still rather uncertain or clear to Everett, he’d been recruited to work on Code Name: Rememdium.
When Dr. Flint first approached him, Everett actually laughed—hard—once she finished her slick presentation and made the offer. A grim smile tugged at the corners of his mouth while remembering how he’d questioned the woman’s sanity and credentials. When Everett grasped Dr. Flint was serious and the interaction wasn’t some sadistic prank, he laughed again. He’d spouted out something rude and uncalled for about the use of the Latin word for cure as the name of the project.
“Why in the world should I believe you? I can’t imagine why you’re here and spilling your guts. Thought you said Rememdium is a covert operation? The kind only men in black know about? Off the grid, Area 51 shit?”
“Dr. Berning, I assure you, only five people outside of the testing facility are aware of Rememdium, including you. As a civilian, you will be granted the highest level of clearance: Top Secret. We’ve already performed an SSBI check on you, among others. You passed them all. The next step is for you to accept our terms.”
“SSBI check? Others? Non-military terms, please.”
“Single Scope Background Investigation. That’s all you need to know at the moment.”
“Yeah, that certainly cleared things up for me. So, accepting your terms? Exactly what does the acceptance entail? I’m guessing something along the lines of giving up my soul to the good ol’ U.S. Government? Maybe burning my fingerprints off too and providing me a code name like E?”
“I appreciate your dark sense of humor, Dr. Berning. However, this isn’t the time for jokes. What this means is you will no longer exist, at least as far as the outside world is concerned. Rememdium requires something beyond determination and devotion: personal sacrifice. Discovering the cure will forever alter humanity, though you won’t be able to revel in the glory once the discovery is made. None of us will. Our reward will be the immense satisfaction of knowing we helped eradicate addiction. Imagine a world without drug addicts! The ripple effect into other areas of society will be immense and far-reaching. Truly game-changing.”
“And if I decide not to accept the offer?”
“We already know what skills you possess, Dr. Berning. Your doctoral thesis and late-night blog posts on the subject matter caught our attention. You’re just as interested in wiping out addiction as we are—though for a different reason. You won’t.”
“I might,” Everett had countered.
The memory of Dr. Flint narrowing her sable brown eyes at Everett flashed by, making cold shivers run up his spine. How she’d stared at him from the other side of the table inside his miniscule kitchen like he was a meal about to be devoured. Dr. Flint’s jet black hair, beautiful face and dark eyes couldn’t hide the cold, distant look on her face. Her features almost seemed to harden, like alabaster drying in the hot desert sun.
When she spoke, Dr. Flint’s tone was ominous and downright terrifying. “We would simply find someone else, and assist you in the course you’ve considered taking many times, Dr. Berning. Plain and simple.”
Before the unscheduled—and certainly unexpected—visit by Dr. Flint, Everett had been a broken man. He’d lost his job as Director of Research Administration Services at Emory University after turning to alcohol to numb his pain from the accident. Everett worried he would never be able to get past the overwhelming loss of his entire family if he didn’t move, so he left Atlanta and returned home to Little Rock, Arkansas soon after their deaths.
He fought hard to try and recover from the loss of his wife, children, and both of his parents and in-laws a year prior, yet the sorrow overshadowed every thought.
Dr. Everett Berning’s old life ended in seconds. A driver high on methamphetamine with a blood alcohol level over 2.0, t-boned the SUV driven by his father-in-law, Bertrand. The family outing for an afternoon of shopping and bowling was over in mere seconds inside a pile of charred metal on Peachtree Avenue.
One week before Christmas.
A trip Everett begged off from because he had reports to finish before the holiday break.
After moving in to the old house left to him by his grandparents, Everett filled the lonely days teaching chemistry and microbiology to students at a local technical college. It was the only job he could find after falling from academic grace. The students were more interested in posting, tweeting, sharing, and tagging shit on the Internet than learning about science. Though frustrating, Everett pushed the annoying traits of the next generation out of his daily thoughts.
With the entire group of his loved ones no longer a part of his life, Everett contemplated killing himself. Four separate times, each in different ways. Every time he’d come close, something inside his mind whispered to wait. Forced his hand to remove the gun from his mouth; stopped the same hand millimeters from quivering lips before depositing a handful of sleeping pills. The hesitant voice in his mind made him pause before putting the garden hose in the exhaust pipe of his vehicle, and step on the brake pedal before going over a cliff.
The clinical side of Everett’s brain considered killing healthy tissue a waste. The emotional side craved for the last minute changes of heart to be from his deceased wife, Carol, reaching across the dimensions to stop him.
Everett’s hatred for drugs started the day his family was wiped out.
Taking up Dr. Flint’s edict to find a cure for addiction really didn’t take much persuading on her end. Even the not-so-veiled threat about killing him if he decided not to take the job wasn’t what swayed Everett’s decision.
Finding a cure—permanently, so no one else would suffer like he had—did. He’d convinced his shattered mind that’s why he was still alive. The reason he was a scientist. Why he’d been chosen to lead the charge to discover an end to the worldwide scourge of addiction.
Wits finally back in full swing Everett shook the old memories away. The time for ruminating in the past was over, for it was time to revel in the victories of the present. Soak up the elusive moment ten years in the making.
A twinge of sadness made his chest clench when he glanced at the calendar on the wall: December 20th. Exactly eleven years since his old life ended. Out of habit, his thumb found the wedding band still on his ring finger, rubbing the smooth platinum.
Sorry it took me so long. I love you all and miss each of you every day. Hope you are watching this. I’m on the cusp of making history!
Limbs working once more, Everett snatched the report sheet from the desk he’d set there twelve hours prior. His age-spotted fingers trembled as he read his notes on formula number 10,899, administered the night before to the test subject labeled the same.
The little white mouse sat quietly at the opposite end of its enclosure. Born from a long lineage of addicted rodents, bred to study not only the physical but genetic qualities of addicts, the change was downright astonishing. It was uninterested in the heroin sitting in the food dish less than ten inches away. Instead, the mouse busied itself by cleaning its whiskers.
Everett had dubbed the specimen Ultima Mus—his last mouse—because if the latest chemical compound failed, he planned on giving up. The long days, sleepless nights, and haunted dreams had drained the last ounce of strength to continue on. He already had his exit plan from the world mapped out.
Everett found his voice and shouted, “Riverside! Come here!”
From across the lab, Everett watched fellow researcher, Dr. Daryl Riverside, flinch. Everett rarely spoke, and when he did, his normal tone and cadence were quiet and unassuming. He tried, but couldn’t recall, the last time he’d spoken the kid’s name.
Two months? Three?
Riverside jumped to his feet, long legs making short order of the distance between them. His tennis shoes made a strange noise on the vulcanized rubber floor while he walked toward Everett. Daryl’s unruly dark curls bounced in harmony with his steps. “What’s wrong, Dr. Berning? Did you cut your hand again or something?”
Everett laughed at the young pup’s concern for his older lab partner. “No, though I would have cut off an appendage for these results.”
Daryl slid to a stop next to Everett, his light, hazel eyes wide with shock and curiosity while staring at Ultima in the cage. He pushed his hair from his face and peered closer. “Are you saying—?”
Everett grinned so wide he thought the skin on his face would snap. The moment was the first time he’d felt happy—truly happy—in over ten years.
Grabbing Riverside by the neck, he hugged the bewildered kid tight, yelling, “Yes! We did it! Look at that! Ultima has no interest in the heroin—at all! Of course, we still need to run a battery of tests on him—see what, if any, side effects the formula might have on his organs. Oh, and we also need to run tests on the additional subjects hooked on various other drugs.”
Everett released Riverside from the hug and started pacing in front of the cages. His mind raced with a thousand thoughts while putting together a mental laundry list of the next procedures.
Daryl laughed as he patted Everett’s shoulder. “Calm down, Dr. Berning. Wouldn’t want to have a stroke or heart attack, right? What fun would it be to die before you were one-hundred percent sure?”
Everett ignored the stupid comment, excitement coursing through him. He felt twenty years younger. He scooted over to the counter and started scribbling notes. “Where’s Dr. Flint?”
Roberta Flint took a long swig of iced green tea to clear the fog inside her mind. Being so far underground interfered with her circadian rhythm. Over the years, the group of nerve cells inside her brain controlling her master clock finally calmed down, allowing some semblance of normal sleep.
Then menopause took control of her body four months ago. The onset screwed up her insides even worse than the subterranean hellhole she’d called home for over ten years. If she suffered one more bout of night sweats and hot flashes, her plan was to sleep naked on rubber sheets, a bag of ice on her head. She couldn’t begin to imagine how rough the annoying symptoms would be if she were above ground. The heat and humidity would cause her to spontaneously combust. For the first time in years, she was glad she was underground.
Though a scientist, Roberta refused to ingest man-made chemicals to ease her symptoms. The change was part of the normal progression of aging. Since she never wanted—nor had—children she didn’t feel a pang of melancholy like the majority of others females. She embraced what her mother always called “the last leg of a woman’s race” with gusto.
There were no psychologically-induced alarm bells ringing inside her head, warning her the expiration date of her eggs neared. Her lips curled in disgust at the thought of giving birth, spending every waking moment consumed with taking care of a helpless thing completely dependent upon its mother for survival. Not to mention the damage to a woman’s body as the cluster of cells grew. No man, no matter how well-endowed or loving, was worth a lifetime of servitude to some ungrateful brat. Besides, she would never let the twelve years she’d spent in med school go to waste.
Personally, she didn’t miss the cramps and torrent of blood each month, though she did miss the week or so of mood swings. Her entire career had been spent working alongside males, and all of them seemed pre-programmed to assume all women suffered from PMS. Roberta never had major shifts in mood during her cycle, though she never let anyone else in on her little secret. The false assumption she would get “bitchy” each month gave her a chance to let out some anger every three weeks if anyone got too close.
She did miss that.
Robert would have to simply ride out the symptoms for the next few months until her body acclimated to the shift in hormone levels. She just needed to ignore the irritating side effects until the readjustment was made. She knew hormone replacement therapy was an option, yet Roberta simply wouldn’t chemically alter what nature intended.
She let out a snort of derision at the thought.
What a hypocrite I am!
Once situated in front of the computer screen, Roberta sighed. Temperature regulated, she shrugged off the previous thoughts and concentrated on the tasks at hand. She gave a quick scan of the small office. No expense had been spared in creating the research headquarters. Though missing windows, the rest of the interior was flawless. The slick construction and attention to detail hid the fact they were underground.
Technological advances were grand in terms of medical research. The equipment in the entire facility was a joy to work with—when she had the opportunity—and worth well over ten million dollars. Using the expensive gadgets excited Roberta, yet reading and typing out emails frustrated her beyond words.
Today, she had twenty-seven unopened emails sitting in the inbox vying for attention. Several of the messages were from Dr. Jason Thomas. He was her immediate superior and occasional romp-in-the-sack partner when he made impromptu appearances. A small grin made her full lips tip upward. Seeing his name reminded her over six weeks had passed since their last dalliance. A twinge of sexual heat warmed her groin.
At least my hormone levels are still high enough that I haven’t lost my interest in sex.
She clicked on the most recent email, one requesting a daily status update.
Roberta glanced at her watch and grimaced. “My, but aren’t we impatient this morning? Hmmm. Perhaps I am not the only one suffering with hormonal balance issues.”
She hit reply then reached across the desk for the phone. Surprised Dr. Berning had yet to send in his morning report, Roberta scowled. Tardiness was something she expected from Dr. Riverside, not the always punctual Everett.
The second her fingers touched the phone, it jangled. The LED indicated it was from Dr. Berning’s station.
“Good timing, Dr. Berning. I was just about to—”
“Sorry, but what I have to report you need to see with your eyes first. At this moment, I’m not sure I could stop my fingers from shaking long enough to type out a legible word anyway.”
Roberta furrowed her brow, unaccustomed to hearing any emotion other than boredom or a twinge of sadness from Dr. Berning. “Expound, please.”
“Roberta, just get down here. I’m serious!”
“Did you just refer to me as—?”
“No time for formalities! I’m too excited. We did it! We fucking did it!”
Before Roberta could respond, the line went dead. The excitement in Dr. Berning’s voice made her own heart rate spike. She stared at the email from Jason and considered shooting him a reply yet decided against it.
He’ll just have to wait a while longer. If what Everett said is true, Jason won’t bat an eye at my late response.
In a flash, she rose from the chair and bounded down the hallway toward the main lab.
It had to be true—no one at the facility had dared ever used her first name.
Chapter 2 – Another Day at the Office
Monday, December 20th – 10:00 p.m.
Benito San Nicolas admired the opulent décor of bedroom, his gaze taking in the party decorations set out for his birthday. It was the first time he’d actually noticed how stunning the place was since he usually blocked out all the times he’d been inside the room prior.
He smiled, exposing a set of perfectly white, capped teeth. His focus settled on the chair in the middle of the area. The dark brown eyes of his captured prey stared back, full of a mixture of fear and defiance. For a few seconds, Benito drank in the intoxicating view of Mario’s fat body bound to the seat. The anticipation of the kill made Benito’s pulse pound. The rush was better than any drug or sex act.
Removing his jacket, Benito rolled up his sleeves, eager to usher in his reign. His gaze never wavered from the soon-to-be former Capo. The only sounds in the room were his own footsteps reverberating off the marble floors and Mario’s labored breathing. Benito’s devilish grin widened while he walked over to the tray of weapons next to Mario.
He let his fingers hover over the tools as though contemplating which one to use, though he’d already chosen inside his mind. Beads of sweat formed on Mario’s haggard, old skin, right next to droplets of blood from where Benito hit him earlier. A few trickles of both dripped off his bulbous nose and onto his stained, once white t-shirt.
“So, chero, here we are. What a way to celebrate my twentieth birthday, eh? I’m sure the reversal of our roles wasn’t something you’d expected. Esta bien yucca, no?”
Mario Alvarado’s jaw tightened and he swallowed hard. “You knock me out, tie me up like some common Halcones—in my own casa—and still address me as friend? Pft! You are wrong: the situation isn’t difficult for you. Only me.”
“I must disagree, Mario. I’m about to create a masterpiece out of your body, yet no one will ever know the handiwork is mine. I find that incredibly difficult and rather sad. Ah, the life of an artist is filled with disappointments, no?” Benito replied.
Benito licked his lips while clasping his damp fingers around the brand new Bushlore knife. Gripping the Micarta handle, he raised his arm high, admiring the glint off the overhead lights on the blade.
Mario yelled, and flecks of white spittle stuck to his dark mustache, “When I found you, you were nothing but a chucho, begging for food and shelter in the filth-stained back alleys in San Salvador! This is how you repay me? Puchica!”
Benito’s movements were lightning fast. Before Mario uttered another sound, Benito pushed the tip of the sharp blade against the tub of lard’s throat. A thin sliver of red appeared and dribbled down the metal.
“Do you think I’m not grateful you rescued me, Mario? Made me a Lugarteniente? You provided me with an education, training, and a deep understanding of the business world. I’m thankful you bestowed upon me the title of Lieutenant over hundreds of men. Had you not whisked me away, I’d still be—as you say—a dog in streets, perhaps even already dead. I appreciate those things, truly. But the price you made me pay—nightly—for the rescue was harsh. Very harsh. Your bedroom tutoring turned this mongrel into a ravenous wolf, one ready to lead the pack. Now, enough idle chit-chat. Let’s get down to business. I need the combination to your safe. I want whatever secret you are hiding in there. I already know everything else needed to take your place.”
Mario’s foul, hot breath grazed Benito’s cheek. The sensation brought back disturbing memories of the nights of pain and torture Benito endured at the hands of his mentor when younger. Seething rage pumped through his body, begging to be unleashed. Benito forced his eager hands to wait.
In a last-ditch effort to control the situation, Mario whispered, “You may ascend to the top now, but one day, you’ll be the old dog. The pack is full of scheming members just waiting for the time to strike. They may bow to your whims now, drooling over whatever reward you dangled in front of them to betray me. Yet one day—just as you’ve done—they’ll turn and sink their teeth into you. Do your best: I am not afraid. I won’t tell you a damned thing! My secrets are mine alone!”
Benito traced a slow line with the tip of the blade from Mario’s neck, stopping directly above his belt line. With a flick of his wrist he cut through the material, exposing the flaccid instrument Mario tormented him with for years.
“You’ve never been more wrong, chero. What is yours is now mine. All of it.”
Minutes later, the room still ringing with the delightful screams of his former boss and his own demented laughter after Mario yelled out the combination, Benito ascended the throne as the next Capo of El Salvador’s largest drug cartel.
Turning to stare at the bloody, unrecognizable pile of flesh in the chair, Benito whispered, “Happy birthday to me.”
Even so close to midnight, the unseasonable heat and humidity clung to the night air with a ferocious grip. Though only one week until Christmas, the temperature felt like mid-September. Regina Parker groaned. Enduring one summer per year in Arkansas was enough. The second she turned off the motor, familiar wetness pooled under her arms and vest.
Only three other vehicles were in the parking lot of the small building that served as the PD. The black Dodge Charger was hers, and the tan Ford Minivan belonged to the city of Rockport’s only radio dispatcher, Eugenia “Geenie” Renfro. An old Chevy truck held together by rust and a Southern favorite—duct tape—sat directly in front of the station. At one time, the ancient thing had been red and silver. Time removed the original color, and only those who’d lived in the town for more than ten years could remember what it looked like before. Regina chuckled to herself, wondering how much longer the old hunk of metal had before leaving its owner, Officer Roger Singleton, stranded on the side of the road.
Once inside the station, she could hear Geenie and Roger whining about the warm temperature in the front office.
“Lawdy, I swear I’m just gonna turn into a big ol’ pile of damp clothes! A nice, cool winter is supposed to be our reward for toleratin’ hotter-than-Hades summers!”
“My grandma surely agrees with you on that count, Ms. Eugenia. If I was a bettin’ man, I’d lay money down she’s eaten two whole boxes of popsicles in the last three days!”
Regina walked up to the duo and joined the conversation. “Weather report on the radio earlier said temps should return to normal by Wednesday.” She forced herself not to stare at Roger’s awful haircut. The dark auburn locks look liked he’d stuck his head under a weed whacker. She pictured Roger’s eighty-year-old grandmother snipping away his curls at the kitchen table in the house they shared. “They actually said there’s a thirty percent chance of snow on Christmas Eve.”
Geenie crinkled her nose and laughed. A damp lock of over-processed blonde hair flopped onto her chubby cheek. “This is Arkansas. Weather can change in the blink of an eye! Evenin’, Chief.”
Roger adjusted his hat while wiping a trickle of sweat from his wide brow. He tipped the worn-out Stetson toward Regina. “Evenin’, boss lady. How was it tonight?”
Regina reached past the youngest of Rockport’s two other law enforcement figures and handed her ticket book to Geenie. At only twenty-four, Roger Singleton was young enough to be Regina’s son. A hint of his cologne invaded the space between them, making her nose twitch. The stuff reeked.
“Fairly quiet until around eight. That’s when Kirk Sorrells decided to test out his latest batch of moonshine. I’m never going to get the image of his flabby, naked ass running down Highway 270—ever. Corralling him into my unit might require extensive therapy to forget. I’m giving serious consideration to adding a plastic cover over the backseat.”
“Is he in the hole?” Roger grinned and motioned toward the single holding cell at the back of the building.
“Yep. Sleepin’ it off. I didn’t feel like drivin’ him all the way to county. Figured the less time he spent naked in my backseat, the better. I cited him for public indecency. When he wakes up, he can go home. At least when he goes before Judge Harmon he’ll have clothes on. Ha, the poor judge will probably have to work at keepin’ a straight face after readin’ my report.”
“You didn’t give him a public intox charge?”
“Givin’ the old fart another expensive charge isn’t going to make him stop drinkin’.” Regina exited the door, fumbling around for the car keys in her front pocket. “Only rehab will. I plan on talkin’ to Judge Harmon about that tomorrow mornin’. The man’s already livin’ hand-to-mouth. Takin’ more money from Kirk’s pocket will just drive him to work harder on his side business, and drink even more.”
Roger’s gaze settled on the hood of his truck, a sad smile crossing his thin lips. “That ain’t like you, Chief. Your change of heart wouldn’t have anythin’ to do with Jesse’s troubles, would it?”
Regina bristled at the name of her daughter.
Most of the time, Regina enjoyed living and working in the small town with a population of less than one-thousand, except for moments like now. The many perks of the quaint town kept her from moving to a bigger city, along with strong family ties to the rural area. She was the fifth generation born and raised in the tiny berg, and the first female and second family member to hold the title of Chief of Police.
Everybody looked out for each other and the community was tight-knit. Unfortunately, the flip side was everyone’s business was everyone’s business. The gossip train traveled at break-neck speeds. Within an hour after taking a strung-out Jesse to Bright Waters Treatment Center in North Little Rock two weeks ago, all of Rockport knew. Proof of their knowledge arrived when Regina’s cell phone blew up. Dozens of concerned citizens called, all offering their condolences and support. Several of the ladies from First Park Baptist brought over enough casseroles and salads to last Regina two full weeks. They even held hands and prayed for God to take away Jesse’s cravings for meth.
Shaking off the horrible memory, Regina stepped up her pace and reached her car. “Maybe. I’ve learned quite a bit about how addiction works lately in counseling. One of the top on the list is financial stressors. Addicts don’t handle life’s little ups and downs very well. Money trouble is sometimes a trigger. Ol’ Kirk needs rehab, not jail time or additional bills to pay. He’s been outta work for goin’ on three years ever since the saw mill closed.”
Roger cocked his head, a look of shock across his face. “Well I’ll be. Never thought I’d hear those words leave your mouth. If anyone asks me about your change of heart, I’ll tell them it’s from this God-awful heat. Wouldn’t want our citizens to think their hard-nosed Chief of Police is gettin’ all sentimental in her old age.”
Ignoring the jab, Regina slid behind the wheel of the Charger. She grinned at the rumble of the 5.7 liter engine. She could tell Roger was still talking yet chose to pretend she didn’t notice. Regina gave the car some gas, letting the parking lot fill with the Charger’s deep growls from the dual exhaust.
Without a word, Regina left and headed home. A lump of sadness stuck in the pit of her stomach. Knowing the house would be empty made her want to hit something to release the churning anger inside her mind.
She wouldn’t let the tears come. Enough were shed the day she left Jesse in rehab. Other than Fred’s funeral and the death of her parents, Regina had never cried so hard. The salty mess clouded her vision while she trudged—alone—back to her car. Jesse had bounced between rage-fueled screams of hatred to tear-filled pleas for her mother not to leave her. The look of terror and fear on Jesse’s face when Regina walked out the doors made her chest clench with sorrow. By the time she made it, the wracking sobs were so intense she couldn’t do a thing except lean against the doorframe and squall like a lost kitten.
“Not gonna do it! No cryin’ today!” Regina muttered, cranking up the radio. Catch Scratch Fever blared throughout the interior. At the top of her voice, she belted out the words alongside Ted Nugent, grateful for the distraction.
Five minutes later, she pulled up into the driveway of the small, three bedroom house she shared with Jesse. Turning off the car, she stared at the place. Visions of the day the ownership papers were signed replayed inside her mind. A week before their first anniversary, alongside her husband Fred, they’d moved in. Less than a year later, Jesse was born.
Memories of Jesse running around in excitement while she watched her parents decorate the roofline with colored lights made Regina’s chest ache. Without the usual over-the-top light display, the house looked dreary and sad, matching Regina’s feelings perfectly.
“Christmas is gonna suck this year,” she muttered while biting her lip. A straggler tear escaped and tumbled down her cheek. “I miss you, Fred. So much. Maybe you could have kept Jesse from usin’ drugs. I sure failed. Damnit! This wasn’t how we’d planned things! I need you here. Doin’ all this alone is gonna break me. Right in two.”
Her cell phone buzzed with an incoming call. Regina exited the car, a wide smile on her face. Ever since they were born, the bond between her and Reed was sometimes eerie.
“Your timing is perfect as usual. I was on the verge of a major pity party.”
“One of the many perks of being a twin is sensing disturbances in our mutual force,” Reed’s laughter was deep and hardy. “So, you home now? How was your shift?”
Unlocking the front door, Regina flicked on the lights and held in a deep sigh. Though she loved Reed with ferocity, hearing his voice made her miss his presence all the more. He’d moved to Laredo, Texas over twenty-five years ago after joining U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. When Fred was still alive, they made the yearly trek to Laredo for Christmas. The tradition ended when Fred died. After Jesse ran away, Regina refused to go, preferring to not celebrate the holidays without her daughter. The plan to revive the holiday visit on her own ended when she found Jesse two weeks ago. She hadn’t seen her brother since Fred’s funeral, and Regina missed him more than she was willing to admit out loud.