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The two-lane road was nearly deserted, uncluttered by traffic; it and the town were both windswept by the rapidly approaching storm. Several power lines were already aslant; beyond them, the sky was a severe, ominous shade of gray, nevertheless, she remained steadfast, her discerning eyes dutifully looking after the bus as it pulled away from the curb.

Foreboding tugged, twisted at her maternal instincts; she squinted with worry in the pre-dawn twilight, unable to articulate her fears, to name the thing she feared.

She was afraid of losing him, of existing in a world in which her son no longer existed. His demise.

It's the weather, came a suggestion conceived of logic, one contrived with rationale rather than truth (because the truth sounded too much like insanity for a sheriff- she had shattered the glass ceiling; now wasn't the time for the walls to cave in on her).

Meteorologists were predicting possible tornadoes; her fears were therefore justified. A long drive in bad weather. Inauspicious at best. She shuddered at just the thought. No one exactly lives to travel in less than favorable conditions, no one wants a funnel cloud to drop out of the black sky and come barreling at them at ungodly speeds. On the highway. With no where to hide.

Yes, yes, it's the storm. Of course it is. She repeated, exasperated.

You hear about these kinds of things all the time, she added in her endearingly mercurial way of speaking that, at times, bordered manic and was heavy with hyperbole: "cars upside down in ditches, twisted steel, sirens screamin' and people runnin' and cryin and bleedin all over the highway.'" She added with a note of dread and dismay as if that particular scene were being accessed as she spoke; J.R. imagined an old movie reelwith its scratches and distorted audiospinning on a battered projector in her mind.

Her son, of course, smirked at her accent, accused her of being one of those psycho copter-moms, always fretful, weeping into a Kleenex.

Thisshe prayed silently, her hands clasped tightly at her chestwill turn out like the day she'd discovered her son was trying out for the high school basketball team.

She'd dropped her bakery goods and ran to the school and right into the gymnasium and onto the court to severely admonish him in front of his friends and the coach and the other parents who were all sympathetic. Stunned with their jaws unhinged, and eyes wide with disbelief, but sympathetic nevertheless.

She'd been too late: the try-outs had already ended and he'd made the team, much to his mother's chagrin. One hurdle was successfully behind him, while a million more littered his path to all-star fame and glory.

They both knew that her fears were mostly illusory, unwarranted, and in some instances contrived. But possible. Yes, possible; the doctor had agreed with her. As possible as a meteor arbitrarily dropping through the ceiling and joining her on the sofa.

Her son was in as good as or to quote the good doctor: "hell, in better physical condition than the average young man that comes in here for an examination: his heart is strong, Marilyn- as strong as his will."

There were no absolute tangibles, there was no evidence to suggest he was at risk- any more at risk than the rest of us are at any given moment; at an impasse, they disagreed in circles, she with her proclivities, her reasonswith every concerned mother's reasonsand he assuaging, placating and cogent, without a hint of animus or surliness, negating those well-intended maternal concerns in throaty baritone with the patience of a saint.

Little by little, she had relinquished her hold and observed, misty-eyed and proud, as year after year, achievements and milestones were reached; he was lauded by coaches and accolades were added to the mantel. He had chosen his battles wisely, skipped parties and the weekend "scene"; he was pedantic, excelled academically.

He had proved that he could juggle a part time job, school and basketball and she had finally conceded. An implicit concession at best but J.R. had hardly been in any position to complain. He'd only been a child then, fifteen with dreams of fame swirling about in his head.

I'm a grown man now, mother. He informed her often. A grown man indeed, and a freshman in college. Not everyone is drafted fresh out high school- he had gently reminded.

We could drive up together, she said, ingratiatingly.

I'll be meeting the rest of the team along the route, he explained, his voice tinctured with sympathy, his smile jovial; however, his eyes very distinctly conveyed to her the futility in attempting to sway him; he would not be hemmed in by her fears, confined here in Dry River where there was very little opportunity for growth and even fewer eligible women, where the economy was as dried up as the river the town was named for.

The umbilical had been severed, after all. She had to let him go.

"Mom, I'm a grown man."

"You're always goin' to be my baby", she chided tearfully and observed as he nodded. She waved when he boarded.

She didn't stop waving until the bus made the left turn at the end of Main Street and turned onto the state highway, out of her line of sight.

Faith. She relied on her faith; after all, the fact that her son was even alive to be on that bus wasin of itselfa miracle. Marilyn believed in that miracle, her miracle boy; she believed there was some greater purpose for him, he was exalted; why else had he been given a second chance, saved by an unlikely hero, a stranger among the several strangers who had entered their lives, entered their small town that fated morning all those years earlier?

She stared stolid, vacuously for several moments longer, stared at the emptiness, noted her own emptiness and then blinked absently when the first tell-tale drops cascaded down her lapel; she looked skyward suddenly, her face twisted in revulsion at the stinging, cold rain.

With a final wistful sigh, she pivoted aroundabstractedlyto the sheriff's office.                                                                           

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The psychiatrist was lounging in the recliner with a book in his hand but thoughts of Jarod in his mind, of where the prodigy had wandered off to, his reasons for the silent treatment and when he'd resurface.

And oddly enough, the telephone chose that moment to ring. And that old feeling returned. Jarod.

 

"This is Sydney."

"Hello?" He asked with knitted brows. "Hello, is anyone there?"

"It's a nice day for a drive." Jarod said gruffly and ended the call.

Jarod! Sydney was both relieved and mortified. He returned the phone to its cradle and collected his coat, hat and umbrella. The psychiatrist drove for twelve miles, confident that he would be contacted and instructed further by Jarod.

At a red light, he adjusted his rear view and noticed that he'd been joined by a blue compact vehicle that tailed him closely- but not too closely. Sydney held his mobile in his right hand. Why haven't you phoned again, Jarod? Sydney asked aloud, his cadence in perfect time with the slapping of windshield wipers.

Six years, Sydney mused. Presumed dead. And now he has returned. Finally.

The psychiatrist slowed the car when he came to a chaotic scene in the road caused by a fallen tree. Crews were working to remove the large oak from the highway while police officers directed motorists. Sydney tipped his hat to the young officer who waved him through the first leg of the detour. The smaller road was heavily congested and the inclement weather complicated matters further.

He was eventually forced to pull the vehicle to a stop alongside the orange traffic cones. Drivers behind and in front of him honked their horns, as if that helped anything. Patience. Patience is key.

He flipped open his mobile and then gasped when the driver's door was suddenly flung open. The phone flew from his hand and in the next instant, he was pulled from his seat. His mind was still registering those events when he was pushed into a large work truck.
And then, quite suddenly, was face to face with the Pretender.

"Jarod!" He exclaimed. "My god!"

The pretender floored the pedal, and steered the truck off the beaten path and into the tree line; within minutes, they were on the empty highway.

Sydney was still gazing across the cab of the truck at his abductor. His abductor. He chuckled at the thought.
How fitting.

"Mr. Broots' house is empty."

"Broots is at some sort of convention with Debbie."

"Centre mandated?"

"No." Sydney frowned at Jarod's distrust, felt his heart grow heavy with guilt. "It's a pleasure trip, I believe. Did you need to speak with him or Miss-"

"I can't reach Angelo;", Came Jarod's pithy interruption, "I've been completely locked out of the Centre."

"The Centre is making changes to the computer system as well as its security. Jarod? You seem troubled. Is this about your disappearance? Did something transpire when you were in Carthis? I'm asking you because Miss Parker refuses to even allow me to ask a single question regarding-

Jarod shook his head, emitted a grunt of disgust, shook his head with, Sydney believed, the ferocity one might employ when one wanted a memory shook loose from one's head. The Pretender gestured dismissively, as if the subject in question (Miss Parker) never even crossed his mind.

Sydney was rather confoundedconfounded because Miss Parker had reacted similarly: the dismissive wave as if some trifling insect were flying about, perhaps pestering her with its incessant buzzing and she didn't necessarily want it dead, she only wanted it to pester someone else (Lyle, perhaps), and then the set of jaw, the square of shoulders, the tilt of head which accompanied the deliberate hand-on-hips stance, and finally that trademark 'thank-you-Sydney-but-I'm-a-big-girl-now' smile of hers.

Something had transpired, then, Sydney surmised. But something else had transpired to bring Jarod back.

Jarod "pretended" that Sydney had not even inquired about Carthis or Miss Parker.

"That's because I am troubled, Sydney", Jarod grumbled and cast a disparaging glance at Sydney. "And I need your help." Jarod confessed and then added with a forlorn exhaustion that emphasized his dark, haunted eyes: "A life depends on it."

Another life. There is always another. One fire is put out, another ignites, a child abducted, a woman assaulted, a man killed. There was no shortage of tragedy, no shortage of people crying out for help, for justice. He was weary, wary. I can't save them all.

"Jarod! Look out!" Sydney cried.

Jarod's gaze swung around. Too late. He didn't see the falling tree, not until the truck slammed into its limbs, still filled with pine needles; the cab of the truck was immediately filled with the scent of pinehe would remember the smell more vividly in the coming years, more so than even the fissures spread out across the windshield or the one large limb that had split the cab of the truck in half and separated him from Sydney.

The engine knocked, scrubbed, made a rather odd grinding sound, and then, in a cloud of thick smoke, shuddered to death, and Jarod was going to share some off-hand and no doubt comical comment or anecdote but when he turned, he came face to face with thick, wet pine bark.

"Sydney!" Jarod blurted, panicked, and craned his neck, despite the fear of what he might see.

"I-I'm all right." Alive, at least, Jarod noted with relief; however, the strain in the psychiatrist's voice had betrayed him.

"Where are you hurt?" Jarod demanded when he reached the passenger side.

"Eeverywhere?" Sydney returned with a tight smile. "I'm certain I will be fine." He added and then moaned in pain and pointed at Jarod's face, the thin rivulet of crimson on the Pretender's cheek.

"A scratch", Jarod said dismissively, "can you walk, Sydney?"

He nodded, attempted to move. "I believe I-" The reply was clipped by a groan of agony and then deafening silence.

"Sydney? Sydney!"

Quite suddenly, there was another life to be saved: Sydney's.

And there was only one person who could help him.

Parker returned the mobile phone to the coffee table and returned her attention to the photo album. Mom. God, I miss you.

The tears standing in her eyes had just begun to spill past her eyelashes when the mobile she had set aside not ten minutes earlier rang. Again. "Look, Judd", she asserted somewhat angrily into the mobile, "I don't want to hurt you, but we were getting too serious and-

And in my world, people die when that happens.

I'm not looking for anything serious right now. Hello?" She asked and then strained to hear amid the static andwas that thunder? And whispering?

"Hello?" She demanded.

"Parker."

"Sydney?"

"It's aa lovely day outside, Parker, for a drive."

"Is it?" She chuckled and rose and walked over to the window. "Right." She said to the downpour. "I hope the ark docks close by", she remarked, "these shoes cost a small fortu"

"Parker." Sydney interrupted sternly; his tone conveyed more than his words had, more than his words could.

"I understand." She said. She understood that something was wrong. "I just" Don't understand what exactly is wrong.

When the line went dead, she froze. For a single instant. And then snapped into Pretender modeshe had been one, after all. She pocketed the mobile, grabbed an extra clip and rushed to her car.

He'll call back.

And he did.

"Where are you?" She demanded.

"You'll see a sign soon; be- be careful, Parker."

Careful?

Careful mean

Caution.

She saw the caution sign, the flashing lights and then proceeded on.

The following twenty minutes continued as such, a call from Sydney with the oddest directionsa corresponding sign, strange landmark substitutions, or initials of street signs or numbers that all seemed entirely randomcleverly encoded into his conversation.

Raines might very well be onto them, but the wheezing old maniac had no idea where they were. Yet.

When the mobile rang again, Sydney simply asked for confirmation: I do hope you haven't been in an accident.

She didn't know how he knew, but just over the hill was a scene that appeared to be nothing short of apocalyptic. 

In the midst of the chaos was a car, stalled out apparently. "Sydney." She whispered. 

Parker pulled her car to a ungainly stop and literally ran, shoes be damned, through the mud only to find that his car was empty, and his mobile had been left behind, still open.

She stood, and made a thorough three hundred sixty degree sweep of the area. Sydney was nowhere in sight.

She sighed in relief when her own mobile rang.

"You're early." Sydney said.

"You can hear the" sirens, she was going to say, but stopped herself.

"The thunder is something else, isn't it? Tell me, Parker, what you would do right now if you needed to keep a low profile? And how would you get there?"

There? Translates to here in Sydney-ese.


Another sweeping glance, all the way around and there it was; off the beaten path. The muddy road not taken- if in fact, it could be called a road.

What the hell kind of trouble have you gotten yourself into now, my old friend?

"Destroy our mobiles."

"But Syd-"

The line was dead before the words left her lips.

Parker groaned in frustration but obeyed.

She pushed in the car's cigarette lighter, pulled the sim cards from the phones, brought the heated lighter to the cards and observed as they melted; she then shoved both phones deep into the mud.

Finding a vehicle proved a bit more difficult and involved flagging down a couple of off-roading ladies and trading her brand new fully loaded, customized boxster for an ancient, mud and rust colored customizedwith fat, large tiresland rover.

"Yet another fabulous Centre perk." She snarled sardonically, as shequite literallyclimbed up into the vehicle.

Sydney was a one of a kind tooabsolutely customizedshe'd realized at some point over the yearsof course, she would never admit that to anyone; she had an image to maintain, after all.

She followed the muddy trench into the undulating expanse of dense trees and brambles and enough poison ivy to keep every child on the eastern seaboard out of school for several weeks.

"What am I looking for? Where are you, Sydney?" She asked, aloud. "How am I even going" She slammed on the brakes when she saw the truck, and then the tree.

"Sydney!" She called as she climbed out of the land rover.

"Parker? Over here."

"Oh, my god, Sydney." She yanked off her coat, pressed it to his forehead. "I have to get help. I"

"Listen, now, I want you to listen: someone is here."
She bristled at that, and started for the gun.

"No, no." He chided gently. "A friend."

"Friend?" She asked.

"You do still consider me a friend, don't you?" Came the soft voice from behind her. Parker pivoted, whirled around, observed the rather neutral expression of "a friend."

Face to face at long last with the inestimable Miss Parker. Jarod had missed her, and then again, he hadn't. Jarod had indeed been off her radar for years; in fact, she hadn't even searched for him, and he knew that because she had never been off his.

His knowledge, however, was limited; he knew she kept an eye on Lylejust as she'd told Jarod she wouldand he knew she was safe. Most everything else was a question mark; for instance, he wasn't certain whether or not he'd have to physically subdue her, wasn't sure which incarnation of Miss Parker would rise to meet him and this challenge, or how hostile she'd behave towards him.

All those years of dead ends, stagnation. Would she be like the hungry hunter now? Pounce at the first scent of blood? Risk Sydney's life? Or could they find, and retain, a wee measure of comradeship, work together, save a life? Save two lives?

"Well? Don't you?" He asked again, and then he whispered her name- the name her mother had given her.

She blinked once in surprise under his penetrating gaze, and somehow managed to keep her jaw from unhinging. He looked like hell, from his tattered jeans and t-shirt to the stubble on his jaw and the nearly shoulder lengthand positively manic hair. He'd put on some muscle, taken some sun and one jagged line of dried blood ran the length of his right cheek.

The vaguely menacing style suited the man. Who knew?

And then her eyes met his.

Between them, in that fleeting second, there was a frisson, something.

They both felt it.

It was impalpable, that strong and steady pulse pounding against the walls they'd erected there in the empty space between themjust beneath the surfacewhere neither dared to tread.

And perhaps never would. They merely stood outside of each other, orbited each other, each at opposite ends of some invisible bridge, sometimes haphazardly dancing around the edges, but not too close. It was dangerous to fall.

She averted her gaze, abruptly, because someone had to, because she could, because she was Miss Parker; the façade didn't drop, her countenance never faltered.

She simply pursed her lips and tossed a glance at Sydney and addressed Jarod in a strange, toneless voice:

"Are you going to just stand there or are you going to help me move him?"

Jarod nodded, searched his mind; he hadn't had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of this particular incarnation of Miss Parker. Had he? Or had he altered her personality, altered everything by simply addressing her in the manner he had.
Her name. Was this the little girl? The one who had run away to hide all those years ago and had gotten lost somewhere inside of herself?

He hoped—and feared—it was.



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