C4 A Slab Of Gray
I wait by the window, watching my breath fog the glass. My palms are slick with sweat. My chest is heavy. Every second, I imagine the man with the cane walking back down the street, returning before the police arrive. Every second, I imagine what I may have to do to protect my family. I think of Pat’s gun again. I don’t want to use it. But I will if I must.
A minute goes by. Another. And after what feels like forever, a police car pulls up by the sidewalk. I recognize the officer who gets out. Dean Lancaster, a tall blond with a guy next door look. We met before—on the job. The fire department was called in to offer back up on a car accident with suspected fatalities. It involved a messy body extraction and the Jaws of Life. He was on duty at the time, and we all went out for drinks after our shifts ended. One thing led to another, and there was kissing involved, but it never went further than that. My choice. Not his. And I've been trying to walk the line of friends with him ever since.
He's been trying to erase that line all together.
When he walks up to the porch, I open the door and invite him in. We sit on the couch as I explain all that’s happened.
"Can you describe him again?" asks Dean, putting a hand on my knee.
I scoot to the edge of the couch, slipping away from his unwanted advance, and go through the very detailed description I already gave. Tall—at least 6'2", graying short beard and hair, cold gray eyes. I describe Mr. Pike’s face in exacting detail, down to the mole on the lower right corner of his jaw, and everything he was wearing, down to the tri-colored wood of his walking staff.
Dean frowns. "That's not much to go on. It could be almost anyone. But we’ll do what we can."
"What do you mean? I gave you so many details a sketch artist should have no trouble capturing his likeness."
He pats my leg as he stands. "I just... I just don't see how this will be enough."
I stand to face him, and notice there's something about Dean's eyes, about his expression, that makes me think of how my fingers slipped off my phone. Something's not right.
"Look," he says, "I'll come by again tonight to check on you. Maybe we can get some coffee or a late dinner, talk more about this."
His words barely register. My mind is on one thing and one thing only. Protecting my kids. "You need to find him,” I say. “And until you do, we need protection."
Dean rubs his stubbled chin, then nods. "We'll leave a patrol outside the house. Let me know if you learn anything more about this Mr. Pike."
I sigh and nod. "I will." Though I doubt it will help. Whatever voodoo this man works, it's good at protecting him.
"You need to find Pat,” Dean says. “Ask him about this. I’ll check around town too.” He glances at my head, the bandage there, and his voice turns soft. “You know, if... if you file a report—“
“This wasn’t him,” I say, covering my cut self-consciously. "I fell down the stairs carrying laundry. It looks worse than it is." A lie. Always a lie. But if it's a lie you've told yourself so many times you've started to believe it, does it still count as a lie?
"Right. Well, if you remember that happening differently, give me a call." Dean grins, his tone shifting. "So... what do you say to that dinner?"
His words pull me away from the things that matter. I meet his gaze, my face serious. "Dean. I'm not interested. I told you so before, and I'm telling you again. Back off."
His jaw stiffens. "Look, Sky, things will go a lot more smoothly if you just... co-operate. Remember, this investigation can go easily, or—"
"Or I call your boss, Nick, and let him know you’re impeding this investigation and sexually harassing a victim. I suppose it could go that way, if you'd like." I raise an eyebrow.
He frowns, then turns sharply and heads to the door just as Blake runs in.
“What happened? What’s going on?” he asks, pushing the black hair out of his eyes and glaring at Dean.
“I’ll let you two talk,” says Dean. He checks his watch, then leaves the house, closing the door behind him.
Blake turns to me. "What's going on? Why was he here?"
I push thoughts of Dean away and explain everything that happened for the second time tonight. When I reach the part where I described Mr. Pike to Dean, I sigh in exasperation. "Can you believe he thought my description wasn’t good enough?"
Blake's eyes glaze over a bit and he frowns. "Well, to be honest... he's right. That's not much to go on.”
I flinch. “What’d you say?”
“Hmm? Oh, I know you don’t want to hear this, but I agree. That’s not much to go on.”
That’s not much to go on.
Dean used the same words. The exact same words.
“Wait,” I say, my whole body shaking with stress. “What did you hear, exactly? How did you hear me describe Pike?”
He shrugs. “Average height. Average build. Like I said, that’s not much to go on.”
I remember my phone. The way my fingers slipped off.
“But don’t worry,” says Blake. “We’ll find him. Nothing like this will happen again.”
For the first time in a long time, I don’t believe my best friend.
* * *
Despite my best efforts to describe Pike, Blake doesn’t hear what I want. When I tell him this, he just shrugs. “I’ll grab some coffee,” he says. “Something tells me we’re both gonna need it today.”
He runs to Black Oak Coffee Roasters—a locally owned coffee house with the best lattes in town and great latte art—and when he returns, we spend an hour digging a hole in the backyard in which to bury Marshmallow. We wake the kids and get them breakfast before breaking the news to them, and through tears and sorrow, we have a mini funeral for the faithful Marshmallow. He got hit by a car, we say. It is a small lie, but a big kindness.
Then I manufacture a fake smile and go about making the day as normal as possible for the littles: Lunches packed, backpacks ready, hugs and kisses exchanged. And after the kids are all dropped off at school and daycare—with warnings to the offices that the kids need to be watched extra carefully and not leave with anyone not on the list—I make a quick stop at Home Depot and head back home. With a fresh pot of coffee brewing—nothing as good as Black Oak but it'll have to do—I get to work changing all the locks in the house and making sure the windows are secure. I'd love to get an alarm system put in, but that's not happening right now, so I make do the best I can. Satisfied that neither Pat nor Mr. Pike can just waltz back in here, I lock up the house and climb back into my car, sagging against the steering wheel as I try to keep my wits about me.
Before I try starting the engine, I pull out my phone and call Pat, knowing he would have been passed out somewhere earlier. The call goes to voicemail and I leave a stern message. He needs to call me back now. We have something to discuss. Then, I drive.
It doesn't take me long to reach my destination, and a light trickle of rain splashes against my face as I walk through the expanse of grass with gray granite slabs marking the end of a life every few feet. With head bent, eyes to the ground and my coat pulled tightly around me, I make my way to the one grave I care about in a sea of them.
The rain obscures my tears as I kneel in the grass and rub a hand over the headstone I came for. Laura Knightly. Beloved wife and mother. She died too young, leaving behind too many who needed her. I lay a flower next to her name and speak in a hushed voice, though I see no one around me.
"I miss you, Mum. Things were different when you were here." And they truly were, because Laura Knightly was a good mother. She protected us all from Pat's wrath and alcoholism as best she could. I don't know why she never left him. Maybe her religious beliefs prevailed. Maybe she, like me, worried what would happen to the kids if she did. Maybe she was charmed by his good days, because he did have them. Days when he taught me how to shoot his gun. Days when we would work on repairs around the house or put together cheap furniture. But the day she died changed everything.
We lost a mother. Pat lost his wife. And then he lost himself completely in drink and anger. There were no more good days. And he blamed me. He blamed me for stealing her attention from him when she was alive, and he blamed me for her death, though it was complications from birthing Kara that ended her life. But then, he blames me for everything wrong in his life. I am his scapegoat, whether it’s poor weather or stock market changes, I’m responsible.
Nearly two years ago, I lost the most important person in my life. Since then I’ve made it a habit of coming here once a week, and though on hard days like this I’m tempted to forgo the ritual, in truth, it’s on hard days like this that I need to visit the most. Because I find a kind of peace here, even if only for a while.
“Is today the day, mum?”
Like always, there is no response, and like always, I am left wondering. “What did you mean that day?” I ask again, remembering the day Kyle and I played outside many years ago. How he ran out onto the road without a care. How a car came speeding, me too far away to do anything, and then how in an instant I was across the street, holding Kyle in my arms, safe. My mother found us only moments later, and through tears she said some things I barely remember. But what she said last, I remember still. “One day, little feather, your true self will be revealed, and even though those closest to you will turn against you, you must promise me something. Promise me, that when that day comes, you will remember what’s in your heart. Promise me, you will never forget who you are.”
I asked her what she meant, but she said no more. And now every day I wonder, is today the day?
Is Pike’s arrival simply the precursor to something more? Something my mother tried to warn me about?
I don’t know, and I don’t bother worrying more. I swore to my mother I would take care of the littles. Keep them safe. Make sure they had a chance at a good life, and that is what I intend to do. First, I need to find that bastard, Pat, and force him to tell me what evil deal he's made. Then, I make him pay up, no matter the cost.
The smell of rain and freshly cut grass invigorates me, and I stand, ignoring the tickling numbness in my legs as my blood gets moving again. I clutch my jacket around my chest and walk back through the cemetery, the rain fizzling into barely a drizzle. It takes several moments before I realize I'm no longer alone. A man sits nearby, leaning over a grave, a silver flask clutched in his hand that he takes long swigs of. His coat is black and long and whips in the wind, revealing pants and a shirt that are just as dark. Even his short hair is raven black. The only bit of color he wears is a blood red scarf... a streak of fire in the windy rain.
"Those we love don't go away; they walk beside us every day," a deep voice says, startling me. It's the man with the scarf, but I can't tell if he's speaking to me or to the grave. His voice is resonant, and his accent sounds British. “Unseen, unheard, but always near. Still loved, still missed, and very dear."
My eyes mist as I pause to look at him. "That's... that's beautiful. Who said it?"
He shrugs. "Not sure," he says, still facing away from me. "I saw it on Etsy once."
I can't help but smile at his unexpected answer, and it feels good. It's the first real smile I've had in a while, so unlike the fake ones I put on for the kids and Blake.
"Thank you," I say to the back of the man's head.
"For what?" He stands and turns towards me, his piercing blue eyes taking me in with one look.
"For reminding me there are still things to smile about," I say.
He tilts his head towards the graves we are surrounded by. "Lose someone recently?"
"No... not recently. But I don't think time makes as much of a difference as people say."
He nods, his face flickering with a glimpse of his own grief so fast I almost think I imagine it. "I don't suppose it does," he says. "For what is time, but a measure of things that have already happened or have not happened yet? What is time, but a measure of nothing."
"Another Etsy quote?" I ask, trying to lighten my voice, but failing.
"Actually, I made that one up."
A smile plays at my lips. "A philosopher, are you?"
"More a collector of philosophy and purveyor of fine ideas." He winks at me, and I grin.
"Is that a lucrative career? High demand?" I tease.
He chuckles and reaches to shake my hand. "I'm Kaden, by the way. Kaden Varis.”
"Sky," I reply, slipping my hand into his. "Sky Knightly." His grip is firm, but reserved. Controlled.
After too long a moment, I drop my hand back to my side reluctantly. His warmth beat out the cold of the day for just a moment. "I lost my mum," I say suddenly. "It's been a couple years, but it feels like yesterday." I don't know why, but I feel like I can share with this man. Perhaps because he is a stranger. He doesn't know my history. My problems with Pat and the kids. I can hold my grief close to me a little longer, in my own private space.
"I'm sorry," he says. "Though words such as those are never sufficient, are they? I too lost someone dear. An old friend. Like a brother."
I glance at the gravestone he's standing over. Chadwin Morrison, it says. He died at twenty-six years old, just one year ago today. So young. So tragic.
"It's never easy, is it?" I say.
"No, it never is."
My eyes focus back on him. "Are you from Ukiah?" This is not a big city, and he doesn't look familiar. I'd remember a face like his.
"No," he says. "But I was in the area on business and I came to pay my respects. Did you know, the French don't really say, 'I miss you'? They actually say, 'tu me manques,' which translates to, 'you are missing from me.' He pauses, searching my face for something I don't understand. "I think they may have the right of it, because when I'm here, with him... or his spirit or memory... whatever you want to call it... I feel more complete than anywhere else."
"Complete. That's a good word for it," I say, thinking of my own feelings. "Like you don't want to leave, because the world out there is wrong somehow. And sometimes... sometimes you just wish you could forget the person who is gone, because then it might be easier to live without them."
He nods, his eyes losing focus as he thinks of something—or someone—far away. "It is true, what you say. But I read another quote, one that has stuck with me, particularly in times of grief. 'If you can't get someone out of your head, maybe they are supposed to be there’.” Kaden pulls a hat out of his jacket, a sleek black beret, and puts it on. "It was a pleasure meeting you, Sky. I hope one day you'll find peace in the world of the living, and not just the world of the dead." With that, he walks away, and the sky turns darker once again, pouring down on me as I walk back to my car.
I'm about to start the engine when my phone buzzes. I check the screen, hoping it's Pat.
It’s Blake. His voice is hurried. "All hands on deck at the station. We've got a fire and need you here immediately.”