Authors: Perrin Briar
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Details can be found at the end of Z-MINUS.
Uwharrie was a two-bit town nestled in the heart of Uwharrie Forest, Texas. It was a second home haven for the rich to forget their worries in the big city – the big city in this case being Charlotte, fifty miles west as the crow flies.
The natural valley had high mountain walls and thick green natural plumage to escape prying eyes. What people never mentioned about residing in such a place was that as easy as it was to forget, it was equally easy to be forgotten. Such were the thoughts that passed through Lucia Scott’s mind at 2am on a Sunday morning, driving home after her flight from New York.
On her flight, Lucia had enjoyed the complimentary newspaper. Her family were there, splashed across the society pages. Auntie Margaret was purchasing yet more green belt land, to the chagrin of her neighbors. Susan, Lucia’s elder sister, was researching viruses, of all things. Dr. Scott, Lucia’s father and head of the family, was heading to the ice cube at the top of the world to fund another research program into the origins of the Earth.
Lucia shook her head. She learnt more about them in the paper than she did in real life. They were family, but they were cold and distant, as if each of them was an island in an archipelago, linked, but only deep beneath the surface.
But Lucia had a secret weapon.
A smile quirked the corners of her mouth. Reginald had shown her a different way of life, one full of warmth and love. So long as she didn’t mess it up, at least. Reginald was the light of her life. And her family could have so easily have taken him away from her. They had even tried! He was what made her life bearable. He’d even spent a great deal of time with her family, trying to bridge the gap, trying to get close to them. He wasn’t from their side of the tracks, her mother had told Lucia. But she didn’t care. He loved her for who she was.
Long ago, her mother had warned her of sharks, men who promised the world but took everything. Lucia explained Reginald wasn’t like that. Sure, he used her share of the family money to invest in his business ideas, but so what? She was pleased she could help him. And if she couldn’t buy something she wanted because he controlled all their funds, so what? Lucia didn’t hesitate to exchange her money for happiness. Soon they would be starting a family. The thought made Lucia ecstatic.
Reginald had been charming when they met, lavishing attention on her. Despite all the far more beautiful women at the party, he had chosen her. Lucia had always felt invisible when with other people, as if she had less substance and would fade away if no one took notice of her. But Reginald saw her, made her feel real, significant, part of the world. He hadn’t been intimidated by her high profile. It was difficult to find such a man.
Soon, they were living together, and he was making decisions for them, decisions, he maintained, that were best made by a rational male business mind than an emotional female one. Lucia had riled against his rationale for a while, and when he threatened to leave, to take away all the fond feelings she had for him, she’d caved. The memory of her immaturity now embarrassed her, especially when Reginald brought the subject up. To think she could have lost him over something so insignificant as control over her own life gave her nightmares.
The headlights of Lucia’s Mercedes cut through the darkness like hope through depression. She pulled onto the driveway of a large country home. The wide front windows glowed, reflecting her high beams. Lucia turned the engine off, gathered her things, and walked up the winding garden path.
Her key grinded in the lock. She tossed them into the empty fruit bowl with the ease of habit and dumped her Louis Vuitton handbag on an antique armchair. She entered the kitchen and switched on the light.
It was short lived, the moment of realization dawning on her the moment she saw him.
“You scared me!” Lucia said. “What are you doing sitting in the dark?”
“I thought I’d surprise you,” Reginald said.
“That was thoughtful of you,” Lucia said. “Have you eaten?”
“Rosie cooked us a meal,” Reginald said.
“Good,” Lucia said.
She frowned. She’d have to keep an eye on Rosie. Everyone knew the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. And there was that time she starched his shirts without asking… And the bear-faced smiles…
“What’s in the bags?” Reginald said.
“Uh?” she said. “Oh. Just a present from father in the Antarctic.”
“Your father?” Reginald said. “I thought he’d gone missing?”
“He probably just went for a walk,” Lucia said.
“In minus seventy,” Reginald said.
Even so, Lucia didn’t believe him dead. He was a monolith, immovable. It was like saying the Sun had stopped shining. Lucia opened the small box and took out a bubblehead. It was of a Neanderthal man. He held a bone in one hand and a lump of meat in the other.
“Someone brought us a boxful in New York,” Lucia said. “Said he was a captain, or something. Each member of the family gets one.”
Reginald turned it over in his hands.
“Ugly thing, isn’t it?” he said.
“He had one made for each discovery he made,” Lucia said. “Loved them more than he did us.”
“What’s in the other bag?” Reginald said.
“Just some birthday cake,” Lucia said. “Do you want some?”
“I am a little peckish,” Reginald said.
Lucia smiled to herself. Clearly Rosie wasn’t
good a cook. She could relax. She took one of the thick slices of the Elmo birthday cake out and sat it on a plate.
“Fork,” Reginald said.
Lucia spat at herself. She handed him one. Reginald poked at the icing.
It’s okay if he doesn’t like it. I didn’t make it. It’s not my fault.
“How was the birthday party?” Reginald said.
“Luminescent,” Lucia said.
“New York?” Reginald said.
“Timeless,” Lucia said.
“The traffic?” Reginald said.
“Divine,” Lucia said.
A shiver ran through Lucia, working from her toes to her head and back again. Her strength left her. Lucia braced herself on the table.
“Are you all right?” Reginald said.
“I’m fine,” Lucia said. “Just a long trip, that’s all.”
“Sit down,” Reginald said.
It was a command. Lucia had learned to obey them without question. Reginald placed his hand on Lucia’s forehead. She smiled at the touch.
“You’re burning up,” he said. “And you’re pale as a ghost.”
“Some of the kids had colds,” Lucia said. “I must have caught it at the party.”
“Not such a fun time after all, then,” Reginald said.
He got Lucia a cup of water. He took a seat opposite her.
“What did your mom say about my business proposal?” he said.
It was the question Lucia had been dreading, and no matter how she formed her answer, Reginald was going to be angry. At her.
“She… said she would think about it,” Lucia said.
Reginald’s eyes narrowed.
“Did you tell her everything about it?” he said.
“Yes,” Lucia said. “Like we practiced.”
“Then why wouldn’t she jump at it?” Reginald said.
“I don’t know,” Lucia said. “I told her everything – just like you said.”
“It could do us good,” Reginald said.
“I know,” Lucia said.
“Could completely turn our lives around,” Reginald said. “It’s only quarter of a million. Small change to her. I don’t understand why she would pass this up.”
“She said she would think about it,” Lucia said.
There was an edge to Lucia’s voice, a sharpness Reginald never cared for. He looked at her, tilting his head to one side. Lucia knew she’d done wrong. She lowered her head as if chastised. Reginald’s expression softened. He lifted her chin with his finger.
“You’re my girl,” he said. “And you always will be. I trust you did your best.”
Lucia smiled, a warm glow filling her, powered by Reginald’s love.
“We’ll just have to try harder next time, that’s all,” Reginald said. “Now, tell me exactly what happened.”
“Can’t we do it tomorrow?” Lucia said. “I feel a bit off.”
“No,” Reginald said. “Your memory will be fresher tonight.”
Lucia’s smile broke when she noticed the look on Reginald’s face.
“What?” she said.
Reginald reached for some tissues. Lucia felt something running over her top lip. How embarrassing. Her nose was running. She put her fingers to her nostrils. They came away red.
“Reginald?” she said, her heart straining through every syllable.
Reginald pressed the tissues to her face. Lucia used them to wipe away the blood.
“Did you hit your head or something?” Reginald said.
“No,” Lucia said. “I haven’t been feeling well all day.”
The tissues were sodden through. As fast as she blotted away the blood, the tissues absorbed it. The sodden tissues splattered on the floor like dirty snowballs against a window pane. Then Reginald held some tissues to her ears. They were bleeding too. Lucia tasted blood, and retched as it dribbled down her chin and onto her white jumper. She opened her mouth and screamed. She caught her reflection in the window. Her teeth and eyes were stained pink, her chin stained with blood.
Reginald stood, transfixed, between a state of horror, panic and disbelief. Lucia crossed her legs, feeling like she needed to go to the restroom, when a warm thick liquid oozed from her – front and back – spreading across her 501s.
“Reginald!” she said. “Help me! Please!”
“I… I don’t know what to do!” Reginald said.
She stumbled toward him, for him to hold her, but Reginald backed away. He held her at arm’s length. The harder she tried to get closer to him, to embrace him, the harder he pushed her away.
“I feel… so weak,” Lucia said.
She dropped to her knees.
“Hold me, Reginald,” she said. “Please. I feel… I feel… cold.”
Her body shook. Reginald dug into his pocket, retrieving his phone. He dialed 911.
“Don’t leave me,” Lucia said.
“You can’t die!” Reginald said. “I still have things to do! Why do these things always happen to me?”
Lucia experienced a moment of pure clarity then, one of those rare moments when the truth of her life was laid bare for her to see, unfettered by personal opinion and emotion, but by cold hard rationality. She didn’t like what she saw.
Bleeding out on the cold tiled kitchen floor, she realized her mother had been right. Reginald was a shark.
A groan escaped her lips. It contained all the mistakes and stupidity she’d exposed herself to, all the anguish and fear of dying, and something else, deep inside, that reared its head, howling alongside her groan like a duet…
Her eyes focused on the flesh of Reginald’s neck. He was jabbering on the phone in a language Lucia no longer understood. Her mouth opened. Her consciousness blacked out, like someone had flicked a switch. Her final whimpering scream translated as an inhuman groan as she fell upon a screaming Reginald. Lucia was no more.
Tabitha stood at a bus stop in Charlotte city center. She wore a short dress with roses on. She held her clutch purse, wringing it between her hands. Beside her were two dozen other people, each dressed to the nines, each with their eyes and ears facing the hillock where traffic rose and fell like waves in a storm.
A clapped-out engine roared in the distance. The crowd froze in anticipation. The bus rose over the hill. Whimpers of excitement escaped their throats. The bus pulled up beside the curb with a loud shriek of its brakes. The doors wheezed open. People got off. Some civilians, most uniformed men and women. They were greeted by their families and loved ones. No one held back, unashamed of their overflowing emotions, hugging and kissing and touching, crying and laughing.
Tabitha arched her neck, looking one way and then another, a grin of anticipation on her face. But she couldn’t see anyone she recognized. The bus’s doors hissed closed. Its engine roared, and was gone in a puff of black smoke like a magic trick. Tabitha’s shoulders sank as the other families headed away.
Mark should have been on the bus. Instead, he stood watching from across the street, a bouquet of flowers clutched in his hand like a dirty rag. Seeing her now, beautiful and his, brought a lump to his throat and a tear to his eye. He’d wondered how he’d feel seeing her, seeing her after what he’d been through. He’d been afraid he’d feel nothing for her, for his emotions to have turned to ash in his chest, like heavy unborn dead fetuses. But one of his emotions kicked, a warm glow emanating from it. It was love, and it was directed at Tabitha. He’d returned to support her, but now he realized it was going to be the other way round.
He took a deep breath and crossed the street.
“How now brown cow?” he said, his voice catching on emotion.
Tabitha spun around. She smiled at the greeting, a personal joke, a moment of intimacy in a city of people.
There he stood, crisp and smart in his uniform, his Special Forces cap cocked to the side at an attractive angle. She flung her arms around him. Tears spilled down her cheeks and wet his neck. She kissed him on the face, lips, anywhere she could. She held his face in her hands. He could feel her smile on his lips.
Tabitha caught the scent of fresh flowers.
“I wanted to buy you flowers,” Mark said.
“So that’s why you insisted on not meeting me at the airport,” Tabitha said. “I did wonder. Thought you might have another girlfriend somewhere.”
“Chance’d be a fine thing,” Mark said. “I barely have enough time for you. Oh. I almost forgot. Your anniversary present.”
He reached into his front jacket pocket and came out with a plain box. Tabitha opened it, revealing a set of bracelets in the traditional African style.
“They’re beautiful,” Tabitha said.
Mark slid them onto her arm. They jingled and jangled.
“At least I’ll hear you coming,” Mark said.
Sunlight refracted and bounced across their faces and clothes.
“Are they the same ones you showed me?” Tabitha said. “They look different.”
Sadness sprung up in Mark like an untended fire. He turned to look away, the wound still open and raw. Tabitha’s smile faltered. Lines creased her brow.
Mark took hold of Tabitha and held her in his arms. His body shuddered. He clutched her tight, feeling her heart race.
“Mark, are you all right?” she said, apprehension thick and clinging to every word. “Mark?”
“I’m fine,” Mark said.
He pulled back. His smile was broken, he knew, his eyes shimmering with tears. He looked into Tabitha’s eyes and rubbed her cheek with his thumb. How could he have feared he would feel nothing for her? She was the only thing he could feel for anymore.