Annie sat in stunned silence as the jet raced through the night-sky at thirty-five thousand feet above sea level. She stared out the window into an unyielding wall of darkness as almost ten years of her life dissolved before her eyes. Numb and unable to weep, she was trying to sort out her emotions. Yesterday, in a state of shock, she had watched the news of the crash unravel on the television set in her father’s study. The announcer said that the conflagration had been so great that there was little identifiable left in the wreckage.
They’d heard the news, of course, hours before the networks had picked up on it, when a friend of her father’s, an FAA executive had called.
It had not been Doug’s original flight, they had been informed. There had been some sort of mix-up with the flights and he’d been put on a later flight, the one that had subsequently crashed. Simple coincidence had been Doug’s undoing. It was true. The universe had conspired against Doug for the last time.
Annie’s mother was dead, and now she had lost the love of her life. And who did that leave? The man she had always feared and maybe even hated. Is this what her life had finally come to?
Since childhood, Annie, as a way of escaping reality, had always made up dramas in her head as though her life was a play to be acted out on some grand stage. Being a shy girl, she had later channeled those dramas toward paint and canvas. But the analogy of her life as drama had never left her heart, and now, as never before, it seemed entirely relevant. Doug had left the stage of her life, and in the wink of an eye the drama of Annie’s existence had been reduced to just two players. How soon would it go to one and then none, inevitably leaving the stage empty?
With a shiver she thought of Doug, of those last impassioned hours before he had made his final departure from the drama of their lives. He had stood above her bed as she’d feigned sleep, and she’d felt his burning eyes upon her, willing her to see the logic of his arguments, imploring her to come awake and look reason directly in the eye. But in that moment she’d felt nothing in her heart. Why hadn’t she? Why had she hastened, even relished his departure? Truth is she could not say with any certainty. But a crazy logic told her that somehow, it all made some sort of perverse sense.
A voice spoke to her from somewhere inside her head. It wasn’t Doug exactly but it reverberated with the resonance of his spirit. “Please, Annie,” the voice said. “Get away from your father before our child is born. It is very important that you do so. Don’t try to puzzle it out, just do it, any way you can.”
She sat and listened for the voice to continue, but of course it did not. It wasn’t possible. There would never, ever be another word from Douglas McArthur. What she had heard was the voice of a ghost. She breathed out a shuddering sigh and at last the reality struck her. There was no one speaking except her own mind. She lay back in the darkness of the airplane cabin and pulled a blanket over her, for she felt a death-like chill despite the warmth of air inside the jet.
But as much as logic tried to impose its will upon her, she could not deny having truly believed, just for a fleeting moment, that she had heard the voice of Douglas McArthur.
The emptiness inside her was mortal, as only death can be. But its awesome power came from the very fact that nothing ever dies inside the heart. The frailty of memory may comfort the waking self, but a torment deeper than memory lasts forever. No man can be banished once the heart has opened its doors to him.
The pain Annie felt was a sworn enemy that was yet her only friend and her oldest acquaintance, the ruler of a prohibited domain of her own self. Hours passed as she lay clutching the blanket, oblivious of the airplane cabin around her, her father beside her, born headlong to nowhere by a stream of thoughts too confused to be articulated, thoughts whose only common denominator was loss.
When dawn was a patient red glow on the eastern horizon, dreams, the gatekeepers of exhaustion, intruded upon her troubled sleep. But before her mind took total leave of the sad waking world, it was greeted by a thought that comforted her and seemed to open a tiny door at the far end of some distant but tantalizing possibility.
The vigil she had just endured was not without its ironic end. As absurd as it seemed, the curtain would not fall after she and her father had left the stage, for inside her womb lived the final character, the flesh and blood that would carry forth the drama of her and Doug’s existence.
Yes, she would find a way to leave her father. Something in her mind, something she did not quite understand reinforced the urgent pleading of that ghostly voice. A piece of her childhood tried to surface and along with it, its ironies and confusions. She wanted to turn to the man beside her and confront him; was he guilty of the crimes her mind so desperately wanted to deny? Did he have the capacity to commit such atrocities? And then came a question far more compelling than all of the others; was he responsible for her mother’s death? Had he so carelessly cast her to the wind in his pathetic bid for immortality? Annie realized that this exercise was futile. She would never be strong enough to ask such questions, or worse still, to face the answers. It’s why she had run. It’s why she would run again. She would never be as strong as Edmund De Roché, no matter how hard she tried; he would always wield some sort of perverse influence over her. But now I have leverage I can use against him, she thought. I have something he wants. No, I have something he needs, something he will do anything for. It is my only power against him. When I am strong again I will take it from him just as surely as he took what he took from me.
The jet sped into the coming dawn.
The memorial service was held on the Thursday following the crash. There was nothing substantive to grieve over, however, nothing to touch or to look upon, as though the man Annie had known and loved had been a shadow, and all of this formality was merely theater. Four becoming three, three becoming two . . .
The service was held in Doug’s hometown Congregational church. Though in adulthood Doug had not been a churchgoer, this place had been his family’s sanctuary and it was fitting that the service be held here.
Friends and acquaintances showed up in droves. Doug had no family, an only child of an only child. His mother had a twin sister, Tesla, the woman who’d raised him, but she’d never married, and had died of cancer while Doug was still in college. Doug had been the last of his breed. Annie laid her hand on her belly as the child moved within her nearly stealing her breath. It was as though the child was reminding her that she was wrong, that there would be another in the line. In that moment Annie felt a fierce, nearly desperate over-protectiveness for her unborn child.
Accompanying Annie to the service were her father Edmund, his bodyguard Theo, and his ‘assistant’, Greta. All others of Edmund’s entourage had either stayed with the aircraft or taken hotel rooms nearby.
The service was befitting for a man who had been loved and respected by many. There were lots of tears and hugs, exclamations of sorrow and words of hope and salvation. Although Annie appreciated the kindness, she could not make sense of it. There was no sense to be made of her life now, only contradictions. There hadn’t even been a house to come home to, that gone just as surely as Doug was gone, her life here wiped clean like it had been a chalk drawing at the whim of some macabre eraser.
Throughout the service Annie sat, stood, nodded and smiled politely as if in another world, looking but not seeing, listening but not hearing. When it was over she knew that her life in Maine was over. She had been here because Doug was here, no other reason than to be with the man she loved. She had never needed another reason. Now, without him, none of it seemed real. Not this place, not this life. The friends and acquaintances she’d made as a result of Doug were cardboard characters, ghosts. The decade past had already faded to oblivion just as Doug had gone to oblivion.
Later, at the reception, Rick Jennings approached Annie and her father.
After Annie had introduced the two men Jennings asked if he could have a word with Annie in private.
“Of course,” De Roché said, stepping away, looking pained. He went to where Theo and Greta stood at the refreshment table and began talking in low tones.
Jennings embraced Annie, and it was the first time Annie had allowed herself to cry since she’d heard the news of the crash, breaking into sobs so deep and painful that Jennings thought she might shatter in his arms. “I’m so sorry, Annie,” Jennings said to her. “I don’t know what more I can say. Doug was like a son to me.”
“I’m still trying to accept it, Rick,” Annie sobbed. “It was so sudden. I can’t believe he’s gone.”
“Annie,” Jennings said gently. “There are some things I need to discuss with you.”
“Yes, we didn’t exactly leave town quietly.”
Jennings nodded. “That’s part of it, but there’s more.”
Jennings said, “I know that you and Doug were being pursued on the morning your house was destroyed.”
“Doug called me from the airport on the morning of the crash.”
Annie closed her eyes as a sob wracked her. Jennings saw that she was incapable of speaking.
“He told me everything, Annie,” Jennings said. “He told me about the baby, his fears about your father. He said he had a strong premonition . . .” Jennings hesitated. “I think he somehow knew he was doomed, Annie.”
“I knew it too, Rick. God, I knew it, and I could have stopped him but I didn’t. I let him go. Does that make any sense?”
“I don’t know, Annie.”
“Maybe I’m some kind of . . . monster?”
“Annie, don’t do this to yourself.”
“I can’t explain it,” Annie said. “It was almost like I couldn’t help it.”
“It only reinforces some of Doug’s suspicions.”
“What do you mean?”
“He believed your father was using some sort of mind control on you.”
Annie searched Jennings’ face for a long moment, knowing that he was right but knowing also that it did not matter. She was not strong enough to resist her father’s control. At least not yet. Everything was too screwed up. She needed a place to heal, to hide and to plan her next move. And she had nowhere else to go. Finally she said, more as a defense than anything else, “Doug was wrong.” She turned away but Jennings grabbed her arm. De Roché and Theo saw the move and began making their way through the crowd toward them.
“Please, Annie, there’s something else, something Doug could never talk to you about.”
She turned back to Jennings, her face drawn and white, her eyes dull with grief.
“He told me that your father wants the baby.” Annie did not reply but Jennings saw the acquiescence in Annie’s eyes. “My God,” he said, “you know, don’t you?”
Still Annie did not speak or move. Something she did not understand was trying to gain access to her thoughts, to control her emotions. It felt slippery, like cold oil, and it was causing her head to ache dully. Her legs weakened and for a moment she thought her knees might buckle. Greta was staring fixedly at her.
“Listen,” Jennings said. “Will you at least think about what I’ve said and consider the ramifications?” He stared into Annie’s eyes. “Don’t let anybody keep you from making the right choices.”
“Annie, Doug’s death might not have been an accident.”
Annie stared, her eyes full of dull regret, but no real surprise.
“I can’t talk about it now,” Jennings said. “But I want you to call me just as soon as you can. And call me from a secure line.”
“I’ll try,” Annie said.
“Do it, Annie, it’s important. Your life and the life of your child may be in jeopardy.” Annie continued staring silently into Jennings’ eyes, her white face slack and lifeless. This isn’t Doug’s wife, Jennings thought. This isn’t the Annie I’ve known for nearly ten years, vital and full of life. Something has happened to her. She’s no longer in control.
Jennings saw that De Roché and his muscle had stopped and were talking to the woman. Earlier Annie had introduced her as Greta, but Jennings didn’t like her. She had cold, greedy eyes and she never took them off Annie.
The woman approached Annie and took her by the arm. “Come now, child,” she said. “It’s time for us to leave.” Annie shook her free and did not reply; she was still staring at Jennings.
Jennings, ignoring the older woman, took Annie in his arms, hugging her. “Please, Annie,” he whispered. “Don’t let them win. Call me.” He released Annie, turned and made his way across the reception hall floor to the door and his car beyond.