The man standing before him, though large and imposing, offered a gentle posture and caring features. His years too few to be an old friend or colleague long forgotten, he stood ominously in the cold cinder block room two floors above Avery Handle’s cell at Houston’s Kegans State Jail. A lifeless expression offered no suggestion of concern or disdain. No hint of compassion or anger.
The man seemed familiar in an unexplainable way; a memory only alive in his subconscious.
Sitting at attention in a small metal chair, elbows resting on the table in front of him, he motioned for the man to sit. The tan prison jumpsuit hung loosely off of his thin frame. His eyes, now deeper set than they once were, reflected the kindness he shared with those he encountered throughout his remarkable life.
“So, tell me why you are here,” he said, pushing a wisp of thin gray hair off of his forehead. The musty scent of the room weaved awkwardly with the static sounds of the fluorescent lights above his head.
“You killed my father, Dr. Handle,” the young man said. His arms at his side, his tone distant and flat. He waited for a response.
“First of all, please call me Ave.” He nodded and smiled softly. “I’ve been hearing that sort of thing a lot lately. I’m sure you realize I disagree with you.”
He motioned again for the man to sit with an easy wave. His towering presence left Ave nervous as he could hear the guards that were supposed to be outside the door talking from further down the hallway. There was no way out and he would offer little defense should the conversation take an ugly turn.
Ave drew on his skills learned over several decades as a physician. Good doctors, he persistently told his students, were just as good at talking to people as they were at treating them. Often times, all you could offer a patient were comforting words or a new perspective, especially in his chosen specialty.
“Please sit,” he said. “You must not have come here just to stand and stare at me.”
Robert O’Toole, with his large hands and lumbering stride, stepped forward and reluctantly sat across from Ave. The man sitting before him likely was nothing at all as his imagination suggested. What he saw was an aging man with a slight build. Sad eyes glanced Robert’s way with no remorse expressed, just the same caring and compassion he was said to have projected to others for years.
Prison did not change Avery Handle. In many ways, it perfected him.
“My father was Cullen O’Toole,” Robert said. His chin protruded and dropped slightly toward his chest. “I hardly knew him before you killed him.”
With the mention of the name, Ave travelled back in time almost 30 years.
“I remember your father well,” he said.
In fact, he thought about Cullen O’Toole and his young son often. Cullen was the first patient that underwent his revolutionary protocol for treating brain cancer, specifically glioblastoma. It was a program that eventually would bring Ave fame and fortune and all the adoration he ever desired, though he desired none of it. It dominated coverage in medical journals and was the topic at countless symposia and conferences worldwide, although Ave attended and participated in exactly none of them.
The discovery, remarkable by all standards, left most expert researchers equal parts impressed and perplexed. Ave possessed unnaturally effective instincts in the way he gathered scans and labs, and combined them with a patient’s personal environment – where they lived and with whom, their diet, their travel habits, their motivations in life – to develop personalized care plans with near miraculous effect. For most.
Besides his MD, Ave also earned a doctorate degree in psychology with research focus on human response to trauma and stress. Using both medical science and psychological assessments, the cure rate for what previously was a mostly incurable disease reached 80 percent in Ave’s patients. The world waited at his door, wanting to be a patient or to learn from him.
Cullen O’Toole was a perfect test case for the fledgling method. Cullen’s wife and only son – at the time only four years old and now a grown man accusing Ave coldly of murdering his father – were the picture of perfection.
“I’m sure you have heard many stories about me,” Ave said, ignoring a strand of hair that fell toward his left eye, a small brown age spot barely visible beneath it. He rubbed his nose along the bump that formed its bridge. “I assure you, little of it is accurate.”
“I want to know the truth about my father,” Robert said. “You’re the only one who knows the truth. You’re the only one who knows why he died. I believe you took him from me before I ever had a chance to know him, before he could meet his grandson.”
Ave stared compassionately at Robert, recognizing the same confused eyes and distant stare he saw in the boy’s father. In many ways Robert looked the same as he did when he was four, his blue eyes still bright and perfect, and his hair still thick and brown with multiple cowlicks making a perfect style impossible.
Ave slowly tried to explain. He began with a long breath in and a compassionate upward glance. “I realize you’re confused about my role in his death. I’m willing to sit here as long as you’d like to understand what happened. I understand your pain and the pain of the others that have put me here.”
“You put yourself here,” Robert said quickly, his voice rising in tone and volume. He leaned forward and pointed accusingly at Ave’s face, the shoulders of his dark blue suit coat pulling tightly at its seams. “Why do you blame others for what you have done? No one believes you. No one understands you.”
“I tried my best for your father. I tried my best for all of my patients.”
“You are evil!” Robert shouted. The temperature in the room began to rise and the chatter in the hallway ceased. An uneven intensity held tightly to the moment as Robert shoved his chair backward.
“I did what I was supposed to do, Robert,” Ave said as calmly as he would order a cup of coffee. “My job was to give life, not to take it.”
Robert stood and arrived at Ave’s side of the table in one massive stride. He peered downward, his gentle features defying their most basic instincts. His nostrils flared and his pale cheeks turned a blotched red.
“My son asks me every day about his grandfather,” he said in a short and powerful burst. “I have no answer for him. The only things I know about my father are the terrible things my mother told me. I never had the chance to know him as a man, faults and all. I never had the chance to build a relationship with him, form my own opinion of him. And you’re the reason for that.”
He reached and pulled Ave out of his chair with one hand grabbing tightly to the front of his jumpsuit, just inches beneath his throat. Ave made no sound. His eyes met Robert’s, trying desperately to transfer his calm to this damaged man.
“Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you right now?” he asked Ave, their noses just inches apart and Ave’s toes barely touching the ground. “Tell me why you deserve to live and my father didn’t?”
“I’m sorry, Robert. I’m truly sorry,” Ave said, slowly releasing his breath through his nose, commanding his heart rate to slow before continuing. “But you must understand that I didn’t kill your father. You know that it’s impossible for me to have killed him. My job was to give your father time. I gave him all the time he should have needed.”
“You make yourself out to be such a hero,” Robert said. “If you’re such a hero, then why will your next stop be death row?”
A hot breeze and the bright sun brought Cullen O’Toole’s hand to his face. His other hand reached for his beer as he glanced at the young beauty that lay next to him on a glorious Mexican beach. At 19, Luisa was a specimen unlike any other he encountered previously. Her light brown skin, full lips and remarkable figure left him speechless each time he came near her. And at $500 a day, she was the perfect distraction for a man on what seemed to be an endless string of business trips to areas around the world prime for oil and gas exploration.
He saw his wife and young son just once in the previous 30 days. His concern was not that he wasn’t with them more. It was that he didn’t care. He tried to love them both. He simply couldn’t. It didn’t help that his lucrative career brought with it so many perks and privileges, not the least of which was stirring from her mid-day nap, rolling over and placing her hand on the inside of Cullen’s left thigh. Often, he considered giving up the road – with all its parties and power – for the quiet life with little Robert and his wife, Mary.
“Little Bobby and Mary,” he thought to himself often. “How common.”
Once a simple man, Cullen lived life at its edge. The intense unpredictability of energy deals with foreign ministers and dictators left his ego charged far beyond anything he could glean from Bobby and Mary. He filled the void between deals with cocaine, weed and hookers. His friends on the road lived the same lifestyle, believing the world was in their hands. Their private jets were filled with young women paid for by foreign dignitaries trying to sell the valuable resources that rested beneath their nations.
Cullen could help them with that like no other. His deals were legendary and made him and his company billions while almost singlehandedly putting third world countries on the map at the United Nations, and catching the protective attention of the NATO alliance.
As Luisa reached up and placed a soft and sensitive kiss on Cullen’s cheek, he felt a vigorous rush of life.
“Hola,” she said. “Te gusta?”
“Yes, yes te gusta,” he said. “I like you very much.”
“Muy bien,” she cooed, stood and walked her perfect body past his head toward their private bungalow 50 yards away, the scent of coconut oil and a dusting of sand on his chest remained after she was gone.
Watching her walk, as he liked to do, Cullen pulled a large joint out of Luisa’s bag and lit it. After a few puffs, the stress of the latest deal began to fade and he forced himself to focus only on the blue ocean before him. The cloudless sky framed his perfect moment.
The headache that followed his thoughts of utopia put him in a fetal position. The sharpness of the pain seared through his temple and onward deeper into his brain. Luisa heard his groans over the ocean breeze and ran toward him, her screams thick with the local slang.
“Get help,” Cullen whispered though his pain. His vision blurred and red, panic moved quickly to overtake his typically cool demeanor. He felt on the verge of the end. Visions of his pending deals and his team members danced in his head. Even in this state, he wondered why thoughts of Bobby and Mary weren’t consuming him.
“Please get help,” he said a bit louder as Luisa stood over him crying and staring. She grabbed for her belongings and ran. He yelled for her and all went black as the rush of blood to his head ended whatever consciousness his body wished to maintain.
He awoke to a bright light shining directly into his left eye and a hand on his head. His energy was gone and his overall awareness was clouded. He didn’t move a muscle as he regained his bearings. The light flashed off and he took in his surroundings: a hospital room filled with one older doctor and several young people, all in white coats.
“Mr. O’Toole,” the older gentleman said with a smile. “It’s nice of you to join us. We were beginning to wonder when you were going to wake up.”
“Where am I?” Cullen asked. “What is going on?”
“I am Arnold Stephens and these are a few of my medical students,” the older man said through a welcoming expression and full gray beard. “You are at the University of Texas Medical Center in Houston. You have been here for about 12 hours.”
“What happened? How did I get here?” He began to recall the events of the previous day, the company kept by Luisa, the stunning Mexican weather, and the devastating pain in his head.
“You got here by helicopter, it seems,” Dr. Stephens said. “You have been sleeping quite heavily until just now. I was hoping you could fill me in on what happened to you? All we have to go on is that your companion said something about you being in pain and quite delirious.”
“I was just lying at the beach and all of a sudden I had an unbearable pain in my head,” he responded, closing his eyes and reliving the moment with a clenched jaw. “I never felt pain like that before.”
Dr. Stephens glanced through some papers in his hands and logged notes into a file folder one of his students carried. His head tilted back to better work his bifocals, he leafed through what looked to be documents cluttered with numbers and hand-written scribbles. He scratched at his beard and looked toward Cullen.
“Has this ever happened to you before?” he asked, his head tilted downward as he glanced over his glasses.
“No, not like this.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve been having a lot of headaches lately. With all the travel and all the work I have had to do, I figured it was just stress.”
“And how did you handle these headaches?”
“Yes. You know, scotch.”
Dr. Stephens smiled again, nodding, “Yes, I am aware of what Dewar’s is. Have you seen a physician about the headaches? Or is self-medicating your typical treatment plan?”
Cullen forced a grin before explaining his travel schedule and the number of simultaneous deals he was working.
“Time isn’t something I have a lot of these days,” he said. “And I need to get to Mexico City by the end of this week.”
“Well, we are going to observe you here for at least the next day and run some tests. It’s not uncommon to get headaches, but one that knocks you out for 24 hours, that’s not something we see all the time. It could be lots of things, so until we can rule a handful of things out, I think it’ best you stay here and try to relax.
“Is there anyone you would like us to call to let know you are here?” Dr. Stephens asked before Cullen could express his displeasure with the plan.
“No,” he said. “I can handle that.”
A nurse stepped forward with a small plastic bag. Inside were his reading glasses, wallet and a small bottle of sunscreen.
“Well, Mr. O’Toole,” the doctor said as he stood to leave, his students quietly lining up behind him like little chicks anticipating their mother’s next move. “I hope you will take the time to relax a bit. Maybe let someone else handle your responsibilities for a while.”
“If I had that kind of time, I would.”
“You know, Mr. O’Toole,” Dr. Stephens said, “There are those who believe that time is all we really have.”
“Mr. O’Toole,” Ave said, leaning into Cullen’s ear as he slept.
Cullen flinched, but otherwise remained still and nearly unconscious.
“Mr. O’Toole,” Ave called again, this time with a shake of his leg.
Cullen bolted awake with a gasp and let out a brief scream before realizing the silliness of his outburst. “Oh, Jesus, you scared the hell out of me. Holy hell.”
“Sorry, Mr. O’Toole, I didn’t mean to startle you. I am Avery Handle. I’m a neurosurgeon here at the medical center.”
“Where is the other doctor?” Cullen asked, glancing toward a housekeeper who emptied trash and tidied up the bathroom around the corner.
“Dr. Stephens is the general practitioner who was on call the night you came to us. He will continue to follow your care as long as you are with us, but given your circumstance, you and I probably will be spending some time together.”
“And what type of circumstance is that exactly?”
“Well, the scan Dr. Stephens ordered of your brain has led me to believe that you may be dealing with more than headaches and stress,” Ave said. “I don’t want to alarm you too much, but I must be honest with you. The scan concerns me.”
Cullen sat silent, with no expression of understanding or confusion, a talent perfected after years of poker on private jets over international waters.
Comfortable with these types of conversations after experiencing a multitude of reactions from the most powerful businessmen to tiny little grandmothers, Ave pulled a chair to the bed to the left of Cullen’s upper torso. He sat and leaned forward so that their faces were no more than three feet apart, close enough to emphasize the importance of what was to be said, but far enough away so as not to create an unnecessary level of discomfort.
“There is something on the scan that leads me to believe you have a tumor on the left side of your brain,” he said. “I feel it likely is what is known as glioblastoma, a very serious form of brain cancer.”
Ave let the words hang in the air for a few moments, realizing that Cullen would hear nothing else he said for at least that long. Cullen maintained his expressionless demeanor and stared blankly into Ave’s eyes.
“We need to do some more tests to support that supposition. Do you understand what I am saying to you?”
“No,” Cullen said. He folded his arms and looked coldly toward Ave. “No, I do not understand what you are saying to me. I need to be in Mexico City in three days. I feel fine and I want to get out of here so I can get back to my life.”
“Mr. O’Toole, I realize this is quite a shock. It takes all patients some time to entirely understand the nature of this type of diagnosis. But I can assure you that this is very real and that your life as you know it most likely will never be the same. I could be wrong. But we must proceed as if I am not.”
“I don’t have time for this,” Cullen said. He shifted in his bed, pulling away from Ave. He avoided Ave’s eyes, glancing around the room looking for someone or something.
Ave knew from his conversation with Dr. Stephens that Cullen would respond this way. He was too busy for illness, too important to sit still and to care for himself. “We need to run some more tests today to see if what I believe to be true is actually the case,” Ave said, still leaning forward, his hands now rested on the bed just inches from Cullen’s shoulder. “I need your permission to move forward.”
“Can you guarantee me that I can be in Mexico City by Friday?”
“That is up to you. I can’t force you to stay here. All I’m asking for right now is to let me dig deeper so I can present you with a realistic plan of attack.”
“Fine,” Cullen said. “Let’s do the tests. But you are wrong about this. I guarantee it.”
Walking slowly along the hallway away from Cullen’s room, Ave made mental notes about the next steps for his treatment. There would be an MRI, a few more blood tests and a urine evaluation. As he approached the nursing station, where young doctors and even younger nurses began conversations that would soon lead to surreptitious liaisons in a variety of storage closets throughout the hospital, he noticed a man and his young son walking hand in hand toward an elevator.
Their arms swung in unison as the boy skipped and jumped, placing his feet – only sometimes successfully – within the boundaries of the square gray flooring tiles. As they approached the elevator, the boy released his hand from his father’s grip and pushed the up button with a loud smack. The father leaned down, put his hand on the back of his son’s head, tussled his hair softy and whispered into his ear. The boy looked at his father with a smile and proceeded to push the down button with the same forceful smack.
Ave rode the elevator with the two, exchanging pleasantries with the father, but never taking his eyes off of the boy.
“He is quite cute,” Ave said.
“Thank you,” the father replied. “He is something else. Do you have children?”
“We are expecting any day,” he said. “I’m not entirely sure what to expect.”
The man smiled as the door opened for the lobby. He and his son exited as he spoke. “It’s a life changer,” he said. “It’s hard, but it’s great. Good luck to you.”
The door closed and Ave made his way to a small swing office on the basement level next to the pharmacy. The smile the man and his son put on his face faded as he wondered if his own father ever felt the way about him the way that man did about his boy.
“Your father is here,” Sarah Handle called to her 12-year-old son as he awoke one Saturday morning. Ave reached the age where he was beginning to realize that the excuses he made for his absent father were as unreliable as he was. Still, he hoped. And the fact that he was present on this day might be the dream come true he so desperately wanted.
Ave ran to the bottom of the stairs and the two exchanged an enthusiastic hug. “It is good to see you, Avery,” Grayson said quietly in his son’s left ear.
Ave’s eyes beamed as he opened them long enough to see his mother turn her back to them and walk slowly to the kitchen and out of sight. She dabbed a finger to the corner of her eye on the way.
“I bought you something,” Grayson said, handing Ave a large and heavy box from a new electronics store. “I won’t be around for Christmas, so I wanted to be sure you had this to put under the tree.”
“Thanks,” Ave said, pulling a new computer from the box and reading intently the product descriptions. His heart lifted by the visit and the gift. Computers in homes were a rarity, and he would be the first among his friends to have one.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Grayson said.
Walking slowly among the tree-lined streets of lower middle class Houston, cigarette butts plentiful along their cracked sidewalk stroll, Ave lost himself in his father’s words. He hardly noticed the disapproving stares of neighbors walking their dogs along chain-link fences, gathering their mail or otherwise peeking like ghosts through sun-reflected windows.
Mrs. Wharton, the matriarchal widow of the neighborhood, let out an audible sniff from her pug nose when she made eye contact with Grayson, who noticed but didn’t seem to care. The younger and far more attractive Louise Parker walked by on the opposite side of the street and purposefully turned away from them, putting one hand in her back pocket, the other pulling a natural twist into a strand of hair nearest her left ear, trying unsuccessfully to not look back at Grayson.
“Good evening, Louise, it’s been a long time,” Grayson offered with a large smile as she passed. Louise kept on moving, glancing at the houses on either side of the street, searching for something young Ave didn’t quite understand.
“Lots of the same faces around here,” Grayson said to his son. “School is good for you?”
“Yeah,” Ave responded. “It’s good.”
“Just good? I was hoping to hear you were at the top of your class. My son should be at the top of his class.”
“I’m not sure,” Ave said, dropping his head. “There’s lots of really smart kids in my class.”
“That’s not good enough for me,” Grayson said, increasing his walking speed slightly. “You’ve got to be better than that. Life is hard. Those other kids in your class will compete with you for everything one day: jobs, girls. Everything. If you don’t beat them now, what makes you think you will beat them later on when you are older?”
Ave stared at his feet. He wanted to believe his dad came back to lift him up, to make everything right again, to love and cherish his mother. The mature young man he was becoming knew otherwise.
“You do want to be better than those kids, right?”
“I don’t know,” Ave said. “I guess so.”
“You guess so?” Grayson snorted with a roll of the eyes. “Guessing is for losers. Are you a loser, Ave? I never took you to be a loser.”
The comment and the tone buried the child-like hopefulness Ave clung to only moments earlier. He stopped and looked directly into his father’s eyes. “I’m not the loser here,” he said, reaching deep for proof of his ability to stand strong for his mother. He was the man of the house.
An unseen blow to his left temple put Ave on the ground. He gathered his bearings long enough to see his father staring down at him and screaming words that didn’t resonate clearly. He managed to gain his bearings and ran for home, the barked commands of his father becoming more distant with each stride.
Ave tore through his front door and locked it as tears streamed into his mouth. The salty taste brought the odd memories of trips to the Gulf coast beaches as a child, the thick ocean air sticking to his face on late afternoons in the sun.
“My God, what’s wrong, Ave? What happened?” his mother asked, rushing in from the kitchen with a dish rag hanging lifelessly across her shoulder.
“It’s Dad,” he said, snorting the words through gasps of air. “He hit me. He called me a loser. I hate him, Mom. I hate him!”
His words devolved into sobs as he rushed up the stairs, slamming his bedroom door behind him. Crashing to his bed, he shook with anger, worrying what his friends would think, wondering why his father hated him so much.
Before his self-pity took hold too strongly, he heard a crash and the screams of his mother. Glass broke at the bottom of the stairs. He heard his mother plead for help. Ave rushed down the stairs to see the door frame splintered into the entryway and his mother, on the floor, blood streaming from her arm as she raised it to protect her from Grayson.
Ave rushed to help her, but his efforts were useless against his father’s rage. Grayson swung repeatedly at his mother’s head, connecting more often than missing. Blood spurted from her lip and soon on spots above her eyes. Words were spoken by all three of them, but none registered clearly. Occasional pleas for mercy interrupted by accusations of infidelity provided the devastating soundtrack to this most unreal movie playing out before a boy too young to understand.
“Get help! Get help!” was all his mother could manage to say to Ave. Grayson turned toward his boy and reached for him. The quickness of youth won out with the help of a weak and deliberate assist from his mother’s leg as Grayson stumbled.
Ave exited the door and didn’t have to run far as two neighbors, both strong and gruff men, rushed purposefully toward his home. Ave remembered later wondering why they weren’t as scared and confused as he was.
Ushered by another neighbor into the Taylor home two doors down, he heard male voices screaming, more crashes and thuds, interrupted occasionally by groans of pain that sounded like his father’s voice. As the door closed behind him, a maternal embrace covered his ears against a soft breast as the sounds and fear faded. His lone remaining thought was wondering why he didn’t hear his mother’s voice.
Sirens and screams poured through the neighborhood and Ave snuck past Mrs. Taylor to peer out the window. Neighbors stood all around, staring and chatting amongst themselves. Hands covered mouths, heads shook and a small group knelt and prayed, hands clasped together in solidarity.
“Don’t look, dear,” Mrs. Taylor said, her gray hair flowing beautifully over a short forehead. “It’s best you not watch.”
As she tried to gently pull him from the window, he saw the paramedics begin quickly carrying a stretcher from the house, more quickly than he ever saw on a television show or news program. They waived away the well-wishes of neighbors approaching to gently touch the person on the stretcher. The long brown hair hanging off the edge of the gurney indicated clearly it was not his father.
Mrs. Taylor tugged harder at his shoulder, but he pulled violently away and took off for the front door. “Avery, no!”
Sprinting across the front yards between him and his mother, he screamed her name and dodged trash cans, cars in driveways and, ultimately, police officers forming a loose perimeter around his mother’s property.
What he saw would stay with him forever. His mother, unrecognizable, lay lifeless, her right arm dangling off the stretcher with deep red blood – almost black, he remembered – oozing thickly from underneath a bandage. Her eyes were open, but they did not turn his way as he screamed her name.
“Mom! Mom! Mom!”
“Stand back, son, we need to get her to the hospital,” the closest medic to him said to him.
The same man then turned to his driver and said, “We need to move. Now!” Ave fell to the ground as he felt Mrs. Taylor’s warm embrace once again envelop him. He remembered her whispered words of comfort in his ear, her reassurances.
He also remembered sitting amongst drops of his mother’s blood on the sidewalk. Red smears stained his shirt and pants.
Mrs. Taylor lifted him to his feet. Sadness forced a silence upon him, not knowing if he should cry, scream in anger or run as far away from this scene – this life – as he could. Led gently away from what hours before was the safe haven of his home, Grayson walked calmly past, his hands cuffed behind him and two police officers on each side.
He passed Ave with blood on his face and cheek, looked his son’s way and shot a sly grin toward him. Not a word was spoken as he maintained eye contact through the entirety of entering the police cruiser and it pulling away.
Ave wanted to cry, but stopped himself, not wanting his father to think he was the loser he was beginning to think he actually was. He walked with Mrs. Taylor back to her home, noticing a few of his friends standing across the street, their distance from him a sign of things to come.
By nightfall, Ave was asleep in the Taylor’s guest room. He slept fitfully and woke to the nightmare that he wished was not real. He lay quietly as the sun beamed an uneven light through the wooden blinds and across the room. He saw pictures of the Taylor’s son – now a grown man with children of his own – in karate gear, wearing his football uniform and in a blue tuxedo with a young girl Ave recognized as another neighbor’s dead daughter.
Voices lifted from downstairs through the vent in his room. There were the typical morning clinks and clanks of coffee cups and silverware on dishes.
But it was the voices he found most interesting.
The graveled voice of Ethel Smoke was clear and loud. “Something horrible happens every time he comes around.” She coughed roughly. “I hope they can keep him locked up this time.” She might as well have been in his room talking directly to him, Ave thought, her voice was so loud. He recalled hating this woman in years past as he tried to sleep while she and a host of his mother’s friends played bridge for what seemed like all night. Of all the cackles of laughter and murmurs during times of secret-telling, it was always Mrs. Smoke’s voice that blasted through the thin walls of his bedroom.
On this day, he was thankful. She continued despite the encouragement to the contrary of Mrs. Taylor, who no doubt was self-aware enough to realize Ave could be awake and listening.
“This is not a coincidence,” Mrs. Smoke continued. “Families are broken apart. Hell, even poor Cecily Huston goes missing. And always when Grayson makes an appearance.”
Mrs. Taylor’s voice didn’t carry as well. Hers was a whisper compared to Mrs. Smoke, a whisper Ave could not make out. As he strained to hear, he glanced toward the prom picture with the pretty young girl. He knew that was the Cecily they mentioned. And he knew that she never came home from high school one day several years back. There were posters that hung around town for months, imploring anyone with information to reach out to the police.
No worthwhile tips ever came. And the family she left behind – a devastated mother and father and a confused 8-year-old brother – sequestered themselves in their home for a year before moving away. No one knows where they went. The prevailing assumption was they needed a new start, away from the grievous memories of their precious Cecily’s disappearance.
“He has torn this neighborhood apart, singlehandedly,” Mrs. Smoke shouted. “And that poor boy upstairs ... what is going to come of him when he learns of all the things his father has done? What happens if his mother never comes home from the hospital?”
“Stop!” Mrs. Taylor shouted, before regaining elegant control. “Just stop.”
It was startling for Ave to hear the grandmotherly nature of Mrs. Taylor broken by such an angry outburst. But it was not as startling as the reminder of his living nightmare. It was not enough for him to forget the last time he saw his mother, bloodied and unconscious heading quickly to an idling ambulance.
What if his mother never came home? The thought seeped deeply and quickly into his heart, providing a heavy rush of warmth to his head. He didn’t care to hear of the wrongs of his father. He didn’t care to hear the rambling opinions of a loud-mouthed neighbor. He wanted his mother home.