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At some point in the last four weeks, Parker had tried to calculate just how many days in her 32 years on earth she had spent grieving. She hadn’t reached an exact figure, mostly because she’d become exhausted just from the thought. That was all she did now--think.
She thought about the look on Jarod’s face as his life slipped away from her. She thought about the way his laugh had echoed through the cabin just an hour before his death. Mostly, she thought about the emptiness she felt in her heart. Nothing could convince her that she would ever feel anything else again but the hollowness she felt now.
Sydney kept trying, and so did Ben and Broots. Even Debbie’s smiles had failed to rouse Parker’s spirit in the weeks just passed. She understood why they tried, knew that it came from their love for her, but she could not return it to them, not anymore. So to protect herself from doing so, she had just stopped living. Were it not for the brief periods of time when Sydney forced her out of bed and onto the porch each day, she would not have even left her bed. No, her mother’s bed, she reminded herself, another person whose life she had been left to grieve forever.
Now as the sun made its way up into the morning sky, Parker knew it was almost time to face Sydney’s loving, cheerful smile once again. A part of her was beginning to hate him for that smile. How dare he, how dare anyone expect her to feel again, to want to go out and live again. Never. She could not afford to endanger the small sliver of her heart that remained alive. It was all that she had left. It was all she thought of. Eventually, she would need what little feeling she had left to muster her strength for one last task that needed tending, but for now, she chose to simply remain in her quiet, protective web.
Parker heard Debbie saying something to her father as they passed by her door, and then the familiar footfalls of Sydney climbing the stairs. She was about to yell out and tell him to leave her alone when a wave of nausea washed over her. Moving more swiftly than she had in four long weeks, Parker raced to the bathroom, barely making it before what little she’d eaten the day before came back out into the world. After several moments, the terrible vomiting finally stopped, and just as she reached out to flush the toilet a towel dangled near her face. She didn’t need anyone to tell her that Sydney was the one holding it.
“Sydney, please spare me the lecture today, all right? I feel sick enough as it is.”
“You need fresh air, Parker. Exercise. Why don’t you take Debbie for a walk to the lake? She’s been wanting to go, but she’ll wants to wait for you.”
As Sydney spoke, Parker had stood up and rinsed her mouth out at the sink. She took the towel Sydney had offered earlier and wiped her face with it, then tossed it on the counter.
“Tell Broots to take her. I don’t feel up to it.”
“Parker, she needs you. We all need you.”
Sighing heavily, Parker let her eyes fall on Sydney’s face. For the first time in a month she looked at him, really look at him, and a twinge of guilt struck her heart when she saw him. Sydney had aged 10 years in four weeks. She knew a big part of that was Jarod’s loss, but she also knew that another part was his worry over her, and Parker hated that almost as much as she hated the cavernous hole in her heart that she was only beginning to learn to live with.
“I’m sorry, Sydney. I want to...I just can’t. Not yet.”
Sydney saw the honesty reflected in Parker’s eyes, and he knew she was telling him the absolute truth. At the moment, she had no concept of how to let anyone need her or love her. It would take time for that. But she had said she wanted to, and that meant they hadn’t lost her, too. He nodded, and Parker lowered her eyes, and then headed back toward the bedroom. By the time Sydney followed, she had returned to her bed and was settling underneath the covers. Sydney walked toward her and eased himself down on the side of the bed.
“Sydney, please just let me sleep.”
“Do you sleep, Parker? I don’t. I stay awake and I think about all the times when I could have done something that would have made a difference to you or to Jarod. I think about how in the world I’m going to keep the promise I made to Jarod.”
“What did you promise him?”
“That I wouldn’t let anything happen to you. How will I make certain of that, Parker, when you don’t care about what happens to you anymore?”
Parker had no answer for Sydney, and she lay quietly until he finally gave up and left the room. She hid there all day, her mind working on sorting out all of the bits and pieces of tattered emotion that now made up the sum total of who she was. By the time the sun began to set, Parker had come to a decision. She could feel nothing any longer but hatred, and so she would act on what she felt and hope that somehow in doing so she would find some way to survive.
She waited until she was certain that all of the rest of the inn’s occupants had long since gone to sleep, then she climbed from the bed and dressed. She packed nothing. Anything she needed, she would find along the way. It would be best to travel light anyway, for what she had in mind. Still, there was one stop Parker had to make before she could drive away from Maine.
It amazed her how easily she found her way in the darkness. She knew instinctively when she had reached the right place, and she knelt down, her hands touching upon the last remaining petals of the season’s wood anemones. Parker caressed the small shrubs and thought about the beautiful spirit that now lived inside of them.
That was all she said. What more was there? Knowing that, Parker stood and quietly made her way back to the inn and down the driveway. It was hours before anyone realized she had gone. Sydney had woke and gone to her room, and there he found note that read simply, “If you want me to go on living, then let me be. Don’t try to find me, and don’t try to stop me.”
Anguish is a horrible thing to watch. One would think there is no such thing as anguish in heaven, but when someone has been ripped out of a life they truly loved at the very brink of a long-awaited happiness, it’s impossible for them to accept such a thing without also shouldering a great amount of despair. Nothing, not even the beauties of the universes mysteries can make it run its course any faster than that particular person will allow.
Jarod was not allowing his grief to end quickly or quietly. Thomas, Catherine, Faith and Kyle stayed with him in shifts, often watching from the shadows because when Jarod saw them, his rage seemed to increase rather than diminish. He screamed at them for allowing it to happen, though they all knew that it was only his anger that caused him to blame them. He needed to blame someone, and despite all the evidence before him, Jarod couldn’t seem to acknowledge God enough to be angry with him.
Not surprisingly, the spirit who had the most success in getting close to Jarod was Catherine. Though she was still subjected to the Pretender’s rages, her resemblance to his love seemed to get her nearer to him than any of the others, and in truth, she had the most patience with him. So it didn’t surprise Thomas that he found Catherine with Jarod when he went to tell her of Parker’s latest mission.
Jarod’s heaven, the one that had been created for him upon his arrival, was a replica of Parker’s house. Thomas’ was the same. Faith had explained to him that the last thought a person had as they died was of what had made them happiest in life. By the time your soul reached heaven, a place that would always remind you of that happiness was waiting for you. At first, Thomas had thought this the cruelest trick. To see that house everyday and be reminded of what he’d lost...but now, after a long time, he saw the beauty in it. All he had to do at any point in his day was close his eyes and imagine Parker sitting on the chaise in her mother’s studio, and suddenly all of his sadness disappeared. He would always hate that he had not been meant to live out her life with her, but imagining her alive and happy had become the joy of his new existence.
He walked up onto the familiar porch and opened the door of the house. Jarod was curled up in front of the fireplace, his back to Catherine, who sat on the sofa watching over him. She looked up at Thomas’ entrance, and stood up to go greet him, knowing that Jarod would not acknowledge either action.
“Hi. How is he?”
“The same. He just won’t talk to anyone.”
“Well, I’ll stay with him now. You better get back to Parker.”
“Why?” Catherine asked.
“She’s gone after them. She’s going after the Centre.”
Catherine sighed heavily. Though she had expected this, a small shred of hope had remained that her daughter might take a different path. Of course, that path would have been easier, which meant her girl would have none of it. Easy had never been the style of Parker women.
“Catherine, did you hear me?”
Blinking, Catherine looked up and realized had stopped listening to
Thomas and had, in fact, not heard what he’d just said.
“No, I’m sorry.”
“I said ‘isn’t it time we let her know?’”
“Soon, Thomas. She needs more time. I better go find her.”
Thomas nodded as Catherine headed out of the door. Thomas made his way to the sofa she had just occupied and sat down. Jarod did not turn to look at him, instead focusing on the fire, but to Thomas’ complete surprise, his friend actually spoke.
“Are you my babysitter for the rest of the day?”
“I guess so, Jarod, if that’s how you want to look at it.”
“Is there some other way to look at it?”
There was a small silence as Thomas thought about what to say next. Jarod had literally not spoken a civil word to anyone in the weeks he’d been here. Thomas finally had an opening, and he didn’t want to blow it.
“Well, you could look at it as a chance to talk with someone who knows exactly how you feel. And before you tell me I can’t understand, remember how I ended up here, Jarod.”
And then Jarod did something else he hadn’t done in days...he turned and looked at Thomas.
“I knew while it was happening that I couldn’t fight it, that I had to give in, but...how am I supposed to do this? How am I supposed to be here and know every day for eternity that I can’t be with her anymore?”
“The same way I did. The same way Catherine has. You do what you can to help Parker live without you. It’s all you can do for her now.”
Jarod closed his eyes and turned back toward the fire. After a few long moments, he opened his eyes, but kept them fixed on the flames.
“Is it true?”
“Is it true that she’s...are they really with her?”
“Yes, Jarod, they are. She doesn’t know yet. Catherine says she needs to deal with more of her grief before she knows. But they are with her, and they are all going to be okay.”
Thomas watched as Jarod nodded quietly. They didn’t talk anymore after that, but Tommy felt as if part of the wall that Jarod had put up around himself had finally come down. Now all they had to do was hope Parker didn’t have any success in rebuilding the walls that both of these men had helped her pull apart not so very long ago.
It happened slowly, carefully and methodically. At first, no one was even worried. A substation exposed to local authorities...things like that happened. An FBI investigation at one of their genetics research labs...an unhappy occurrence, but nothing that couldn’t be managed. No one seemed to realize until it was too late that a pattern was emerging. That before each ripple broke in the still waters that were the Centre, a tall, stunning brunette in high-heels and dark sunglasses had been there first.
Parker had counted on that. With Broots gone, security at the Centre was at her mercy, and she used that and her experience as head of the division to take the Centre apart a piece at a time, just as she had Jarod had planned it all along.
She had been gone from Maine for three weeks now, and in that time she had managed to begin local law enforcement investigations at eight different Centre facilities. During that time, the FBI and Naval Intelligence had both been alerted to problems in the “research methodologies” of several covert simulations they had purchased from Parker’s former employers. And while Centre staffers ran around crazed, trying to figure out what was causing all the leaks in their “well-run ship,” Parker was secretly tipping off media outlets about the sick experiments they were conducting at three research hospitals in the southwest.
It all should have made her happy, but it didn’t. Being alone as all of the dominos she and Jarod had built together began to fall into a nicely patterned row did nothing but remind her how alone she would be for the rest of her life.
Now Parker sat in her hotel room, feeling once again as if she were death warmed over. She knew her upset stomachs were probably a result of the terrible eating she was doing, but half the time she was too sick to eat, and the rest of it she seemed to only want to eat things that were bad for her.
She also felt terrible in her heart. When she managed to push her own grief aside for a few moments, Parker knew that Sydney and Broots must be worried sick about her, but she couldn’t bring herself to call them, mostly because she knew they’d try and convince her to come home, and right now, she just couldn’t.
Sighing, Parker stood up from the table where the remains of her spaghetti dinner were left to sit. She crossed the room and climbed into bed, pulling the covers around her. No sooner was she snuggled into her blankets than she heard a loud thunder crack outside, and suddenly a pouring rainstorm began. Good, she thought. The rain suited her mood.
From the corner, Catherine and Jarod watched her. His conversation with Thomas had proved to be the breakthrough for Jarod. Though his heart still ached every time he thought about Parker, which was every moment of every day, he had started to accept that by learning to help her, he could learn to watch her live life without him.
Now here he was, standing in the same room with her, and he could feel her pain like a pulse inside of his own body. God, she was so lost. He had to find some way to help her. The question was, how. And then Catherine gave him the answer.
“You know, whenever she misses me too much, I give her a good dream. Sometimes, it’s us walking together in the woods. Other times, it’s of the future I hope she’ll have. It’s not hard. You just see what you want her to see, and then she’ll see it too.”
Jarod nodded, then walked over to the bed where his love lay sleeping. She had drifted off under their gaze, but he could see that she was restless. Parker was clearly not having a good dream, and when he reached out to touch her, Jarod saw why. She was reliving his death. He could see what was happening in her mind as easily as if he were watching a movie, and it stunned him at first. Then he remembered Catherine’s words, and so he forced his mind to focus in on what he wanted to give to her.
Parker was on the ground, holding Jarod in her arms, her tears washing over his body. She felt him slipping away again, felt him leaving her, but she knew she could not stop it. Then she heard his voice utter those words that she still didn’t understand.
‘It’s not over. Our dream isn’t finished.’
Why had he said that to her? How could their dream not be over when he was gone? Parker saw herself holding him, saw the blood everywhere, and her heart beat faster and faster as the pain and confusion of that moment returned to her. Then suddenly it all disappeared. She was no longer in the cabin with Jarod’s lifeless body. Instead, she was in her mother’s studio at home, a big soft quilt laid out beneath her on the floor. And she was looking at something. Parker waited as it all came into better focus, and she took a deep breath as she realized what held her attention so. Two tiny faces...perfect, happy baby faces with blue eyes and Jarod’s smile. They were lying on the quilt side by side, and Parker saw that she was leaning over them with a toy, making the babies giggle.
‘It’s not over. Our dream isn’t finished.’
Parker woke with a start, her blankets still tightly wrapped around her. Suddenly dates began to rush through her head, and though she had been through hell these past two months, two decades of remembering the all important start date made it easy for her to remember how long it had been since she’d had one.
“Oh, God. Oh, my God.”
Parker threw back the blankets, her hands instantly moving to her abdomen. And suddenly she knew what Jarod had been trying to tell her.
Broots sat in the passenger seat of the car, his wireless modem hooking him up to the records he’d been searching for all morning. Miss Parker was nearly as hard to track as Jarod had been, and it had taken them every day since she’d disappeared to get any kind of lead on her. Actually, it had taken Major Charles. Broots still remembered how he’d stood there, mouth open, as he sat on the front porch of Ben’s inn and watched Jarod’s father walk up the driveway. Thankfully, Sydney had been there to utter some kind of intelligent speech, because it had taken nearly fifteen minutes for Broots’ brain to get over the shock of seeing the major there.
From the look on Charles’ face, it was obvious he’d heard about his son. Apparently, one of the things Miss Parker had done after disappearing was contact a few of Jarod’s old friends, those he’d made while out helping the little guy. She told them of Jarod’s death and asked them to please make sure his father was told where his son had been laid to rest. It had taken barely a week for the man to show up here, and Sydney led the major away to the path that led toward the field where they had spread Jarod’s ashes.
Later that night, Broots had sat with the three other men, Ben, Sydney, and Charles, and they all filled the pretender’s father in on the way Jarod and Miss Parker had come together to defeat Lyle and to try and work against the Centre. Charles listened intently, rarely interrupting with anything more than a nod. When they had finished, he leveled his eyes at Sydney.
“Where is she?”
Sydney shook his head. “I don’t know. She left a little over a week ago, and I have no clue where she’s gone, though Broots does think he knows what she’s doing.”
That was when Broots showed Charles the chart of the “problems” the Centre had begun having almost immediately after Miss Parker had disappeared. Charles looked the data over and then he looked at Sydney and Broots.
“She’s gone after them.”
“I think she feels she has to,” Sydney said, his voice tired and low, “in order for her to find any peace, she has to make certain no one else can be hurt by the Centre.”
Charles looked at the data again, then he straightened his shoulders, shifting the grief he was only beginning to feel into the background.
“Then we have to find her. I’m not going to let anything happen to Parker. She’s all I have left of my son.”
And with that, they had begun their search. It was a challenge to say the least. Miss Parker was too smart to use credit and her ability to generate fake Ids and to blend into the general public definitely made Broots wonder again why the Centre had never trained Miss Parker as a pretender. She would have been an amazing one.
She was also timing her strikes beautifully. By the time they even heard a whisper of another problem at a Centre facility, Miss Parker had come and gone, which left them in the same position they’d so often been in with Jarod...a day late.
They’d gotten more help in their effort when Sam had sent Broots an e-mail alerting the former Centre technician that he had finally gotten clear of the Centre. The group had been cautious in meeting with Sam, hesitant they were walking into a Centre trap, but they had found only Sam, a few pounds thinner after spending more than a month on the run from the Centre, but none the worse for the wear. It was Sam and the major who had come up with the idea to use Broots’ probability program to pick the two places Parker would be most likely to target next and then split into two teams and put the locations under surveillance. Ben would stay at the inn in case she decided to return and to take care of Debbie.
That had been a week ago. Broots was with Major Charles in Seattle, and Sydney and Sam were in Dallas. Both had targets that fit the profile of those Miss Parker had already struck. Broots and Charles had done reconnaissance on the Seattle cryogenics laboratory for four days when they’d noticed her. She was dressed in the typical lab coat of the other SeCry employees, but there was no mistaking those legs or that walk, not after Broots had spent so many hours learning every detail of both in the past five years. Unfortunately, they’d lost her in the crowd of employees trying to leave for the day and they’d been worried they had lost their chance. But the next day, when no news stories broke and no police cars showed up, they realized that Parker had not yet put her play into action.
That had led them back to SeCry today, and they had planned to do surveillance the entire day until Broots probability program came through again. His system had picked the five most logical places Miss Parker could be staying, and Broots had finally hit pay dirt on location number four. A woman named Jamie Dover was staying in a local hotel. She had also recently started at SeCry.
They pulled into the hotel parking lot and headed inside. Rather than bother trying to fight with the front desk over a room number, Broots had hacked into their system, and he now looked over at the major.
The major nodded and they both headed toward the elevator. They climbed to the third floor. They approached room 341 to find the door open, and a bellboy walking out with two suitcases. The bellboy nodded politely to them, and the two men walked inside, hoping they were too late.
This time, as it turned out, they were right on time.
Miss Parker was putting a few last items into her briefcase when she realized someone was in the room with her. She turned around to see her friend and the father of the man she loved. Broots smiled nervously at her, and Parker returned the smile to him, then all of her attention turned to Charles. Slowly, she walked toward the older man, and soon she was right in front of him. She opened her mouth to speak, but before she could, she burst into tears and Broots had to turn away before his own waterworks began to flow.
Charles immediately pulled Parker into his arms, his strength holding her up as her grief flowed freely for the first time in weeks. She was no longer fighting it, trying to hold it in or push it away. She knew now that she couldn’t do that. The realization she’d had last night was one too powerful to allow for selfish thought anymore.
“I’m sorry, Charles. I’m so sorry.”
Parker felt his arms close tighter around her, and then she felt the rumbling of his chest as he spoke low and soft to her.
“It wasn’t your fault. I’ve known since that day in North Carolina that my son’s love for you was too strong to let anything but death keep him away from you. If I had to lose him, I’m just grateful I have you to remind me of how amazing he was.”
Parker smiled then, and she pulled back, looking at Charles and seeing all the tiny things about him that were Jarod.
“You’ll have more than me.”
Broots turned back to look at them, wondering what his friend had meant. Parker saw him step closer, and she reached out, taking his hand.
“And I’m going to need all of you. I’m pregnant.”
Both men stood shocked, but that shock quickly turned to joy. For the first time since Jarod had died, Parker was smiling, really truly smiling, and they all suddenly had reason to hope again.
“Oh, Parker, that’s wonderful.” Charles spoke as he hugged her again, his heart suddenly feeling a bit of its pain replaced with a sliver of joy. “I’m just glad we found you before you disappeared again.”
“I wasn’t disappearing, I was coming home. I don’t just need your help with the baby. I need your help with the Centre. I have to speed things up. I will not let them hurt Jarod’s child.”
And both men nodded, knowing they would do whatever it took to help her.
Across the room, Jarod and Catherine stood watching the scene unfold. Catherine could see the mixture of happiness and pain that played on Jarod’s face, and she leaned over close to him, letting him feel her presence.
“You see, Jarod. You will always be part of her life. You will always be there to help her.”
Jarod nodded, but his voice came out choked with emotion as he responded.
“It’s not the same.”
And Catherine, with full understanding, put her hand on his back and tried to comfort him.