Season of Fire
Miss Parker stood in the nursery doorway, her arms loaded with goodies for the baby. A bunch of brightly colored balloons floated above her head, tethered to her slender wrist by several lengths of curled ribbon. Tucked beneath her left arm was a new blue blanket, thick and soft, and under her right was a stuffed rabbit made of plush brown fake fur. She hurried into the room and sat her gifts down quickly, tying the balloons onto the crib railing before she hurried to pick him up.
Gabriel had seen her from the moment she entered the room and sat with arms outstretched toward her, smiling brightly. He flexed his chubby fingers in a grasping motion, and burbled, “Mine! Mine!”
He was always very possessive of his big sister when she came to visit him.
The nurse looked on disapprovingly, eyeing the pile of wrapped packages. “Your father won’t be happy with all this extravagance,” she reminded the young woman. “He doesn’t want the baby spoiled.”
Parker rounded on the woman with a fierce glare. “Gabriel doesn’t have a mother anymore. He’s raised by strangers since his father’s so busy. Even I don’t get to see him as often as I’d like, so he deserves to be spoiled. And I don’t want to hear another word about it. Understood?”
The nurse cowered. “Yes, Miss Parker.”
“You can leave us alone now,” Parker snarled. Her frosty demeanor thawed instantly when she turned to look into Gabriel’s sweet, happy face, and she smiled at him. “Besides, it’s your birthday, baby brother. Everyone deserves to be spoiled on their birthday, don’t they?”
Parker listened to the nurse’s footsteps as she retreated, closing the door after her.
“That’s better, isn’t it?” The redhead carried Gabriel over to the pile of packages, sat down with him on the floor with the grace of a dancer, and settled the baby on her lap. “Now let’s see what Big Sister brought you. Which one do you want to open first?”
For the next half hour she and the baby worked on packages, opening each one and taking their time with the gifts until all had been thoroughly examined. Gabriel settled down with a book, turning the pages one by one, pointing at the pictures and burbling over them with nonsensical consonant sounds. Parker laughed at his mispronunciations and cheered him when he correctly identified items in the illustrations. She watched him play, joined in when he brought her toys even though she hadn’t the faintest idea how she was suppose to play with him, and cuddled him into her lap when he brought the bunny and the blanket and asked for a story.
She carried him to the nearby rocking chair, snuggled him under her chin and began to read The Velveteen Rabbit to him. Before she finished the story, he was sleeping, but she didn’t want their visit to be over yet. She enjoyed the feel of his tiny warm body relaxed and heavy against her. She loved the sound of his laughter, the enthusiastic way he greeted her whenever she came to visit. There was never enough time to spend with him, but she made it a point to come see him at least once every day she was at The Centre.
Parker glanced around the nursery. It was truly a child’s room, with bright primary colors, cartoon animals illustrating the alphabet pasted on the walls, molded plastic jungle gyms for him to crawl through and learning-oriented toys for his amusement and stimulation. But there weren’t enough soft, cuddly things, which was what prompted her to buy the stuffed bunny and the blanket. Babies needed soft things.
She chuckled at herself. Glancing down at Gabriel’s dark head resting against her chest, she said softly, “If Mom could see me now…”
Her smile faded. She was never so maternal before her little brother’s birth. Something about Gabriel brought that out in her. More than likely, it was the fact that both of them had lost their mothers, and that bond drew them together. She wished he could grow up in a home like she’d had herself, with a mother and father looking out for her, rather than a paid staff in an institution. Parker had promised herself not to let The Centre ruin this child, not to let him grow up to be like Jarod and the others that had spent their entire lives in that place.
But then, Gabriel was a Parker. He would not be imprisoned there. He was not a test subject, but a company child and as such, he would be offered the best in education, health care and environment that their resources could offer. That would also mean he would spend very little time outside The Centre’s walls, unless she did something to change it. Her father rarely left the building anymore, except for business travel, and spent so much time working that he rarely saw Gabriel either. That was no way to raise a baby, especially not the Parker heir.
If she had any say in the matter - and in The Centre, she did - Gabriel would have a very different life, indeed. She would see to that personally. He mattered more than her vendetta against Jarod, more than the Triumvirate’s directive to catch the Pretender, more than anything or anyone else in the world. She would see to it that Gabriel had the love and attention he needed, just as her own mother had given to her. And until her father found a new mother for his son, Big Sister would just have to do as a surrogate mom.
Maybe she’d bring him a puppy, or some other gentle pet to help keep him company when she wasn’t around.
She thought about Benjamin, the rabbit Jarod had sent her as a Christmas gift a few years back. Debbie Broots kept the rabbit in a hutch in her back yard since Parker couldn’t be there to care for it on a daily basis, and she had adopted the habit of visiting Benjamin and Debbie routinely each week. The next time she went, she promised herself to take Gabriel as well, so he could meet Benjamin and see a real rabbit. The baby needed an outing, and she needed to visit her furry little friend.
Benjamin was a very good listener. She could tell him anything, cry into his fur and hold him close, and he never objected. Parker smiled as she looked down at Gabriel and saw his tiny little arm wrapped around the stuffed bunny’s neck. She would have to be careful in teaching him the difference between a real bunny and a stuffed one, but the story she had read would help with that and she knew Gabriel was smart. She was sure he would understand that he had to be gentle with Benjamin.
She sighed. Pets would probably be frowned upon by the staff, since they’d have to clean up after the animal and see to its needs in addition to the baby’s. That probably wasn’t a good idea, but she could still take her brother out to see animals and go for picnics and play in the park when he was a little older. She could do lots of things with him, and thinking about them brought a sense of satisfaction and peace that warmed her and made her feel complete in a way she had never imagined. He was going to be very good for her, indeed. Her mother would be proud.
Gabriel stirred, opened his eyes and squirmed to get down from her lap. She helped him down to the floor, and he dropped the bunny but kept one little fist closed around the blanket as he toddled toward his toys. At the last minute he swerved away from the jungle gym and headed for the presents and the crumpled pile of wrapping paper.
Parker watched him play for a few minutes, leaning forward on her knees. He was beautiful, with that thick mane of dark hair grown out in a natural Caesar. It was just beginning to curl up at the nape of his neck, and soon enough he would experience his first haircut. She wanted to be there for that, and take pictures for her album.
The baby crawled over to the wall underneath the letter “B” and stood up. He stared up at the white bunny for a minute, clambered to his feet and pointed at it, then turned to face his audience with a question wrinkling his brow.
“Ben-da-min?” he asked softly.
“Benjamin?” she corrected, not sure if she understood his mispronunciation. “Benjamin Bunny?”
Gabriel bobbed his dark head and smiled, showing off all eight pearly-white teeth. “Ben-da-min. Go see Bendamin?”
Parker sat up slowly. She had never mentioned the rabbit to her little brother, and she was sure no one else at The Centre even knew Benny existed, except for Broots, and he had been sworn to secrecy. She hadn’t even thought of the rabbit within those walls until a few moments before the baby awoke. But what she was thinking now was impossible. Gabriel couldn’t read minds. No one could. There had to be some other explanation. She glanced around the room for a Beatrix Potter book, but saw none.
She shook off the unsettling thoughts and smiled. “Yes, we’ll go see Benjamin soon,” she promised. “Maybe tomorrow. Okay?”
That seemed to satisfy Gabriel, and he returned to the pile of papers and began to tear some in tiny pieces, and crumple others that made crackly noises. After a while he returned to her chair and took the book from her, sat down with it on the floor and flipped through the pages, looking at the pictures. For several minutes, he stared at the last page intently, then looked up at Parker. There was obvious sadness in his eyes.
“Bunny is real?” he asked, garbling the last word.
It took her a minute to figure it out, and then she smiled and nodded. “Yes, the bunny became real. The nursery fairy made magic and made him real. You’re a bright little guy, aren’t you?”
“Is Dawid real?”
“Is what?” she asked. “What is Dawid?”
Gabriel retrieved his stuffed bunny and thrust him into Parker’s lap. “Dawid?” Then he toddled over to the “J” on the wall and slapped his left hand against the picture of the jackal.
She made the consonantal sound of the letter and tried to work it into the word.
Gabriel nodded, smiling at her efforts. “Dawid.”
“Jawid. Is Jawid real...” She turned it over in her head, and still couldn’t decide what he was asking. Her confusion must have been clear on her face, and Gabriel helped her again. He put the book in her lap.
“I’m sorry, honey, but I don’t get it,” she apologized with a shrug. “Maybe later, when I’ve learned to interpret baby-talk better.”
Gabriel toddled a few steps toward his jungle gym, then dropped to his knees and crawled quickly into it. In a moment he came out with a few alphabet blocks, then ducked back in for more. Once he had several of them in a group, he sat down and started to arrange them in several piles. Parker watched him, still trying to figure out his odd question. But time was ticking away and as much as she wanted to stay, she knew that time for her visit was drawing to a close.
She rose from the rocking chair, strolled over to him and squatted down. Gabriel had five blocks placed off to one side in a crooked line, but was busy stacking the others into an uneven pyramid. Parker glanced at the ones he wasn’t using, and felt the breath catch in her throat for a moment.
The blocks spelled J-A-R-O-D.
Is Jarod real?
The question hit her like a bucket of cold water in the face.
Just a coincidence, she told herself. Gabriel wasn’t asking her about Jarod. He had never met her quarry, and she was sure no one had talked about the Pretender in front of Gabriel. There was no way Gabriel could know about him.
She kissed the baby, gave him a big hug and more kisses, and went to the door to call for the nurse.
But as she marched down the corridor to her office, that question rattled around inside her head like dry seeds inside a gourd.
When she was much younger, The Velveteen Rabbit had been her favorite story. She associated Jarod with rabbits because of a clandestine meeting she’d had with him in the laboratory when they were children. She had sneaked off to see the bunnies, and found him there as well. She had been sad that Jarod never got to go outside to play, and began to see him as the rabbit in the story, wishing he could have a home of his own, where he could become a real boy and do the things boys did.
She had grown up since then, and her view of Jarod had shifted radically as well. But still there was that trace of wistfulness whenever she read that story. Some little part of her always thought of Jarod. And now Gabriel had asked her if Jarod was real.
Gooseflesh rose on her arms beneath her Versaci suit. She took a deep breath and decided it was just another odd coincidence. And after that, she pushed the thought into a dark corner of her consciousness, and chose not to think about it again.
* * * * * * * * *
The message from Cox was simple, one Lyle had been waiting for. In fact, it contained just two words, but they flashed like a beacon on the computer screen:
The single sweeper they left behind at Sisters of Mercy Hospital had done his job; don't engage the subject, simply observe his comings and goings and report back. Lyle had never been a frivolous man, but he would have paid handsomely to be a fly on the wall when their Pretender discovered that his precious Zoe was gone forever.
His grin became a smile, which became a chuckle, which inexorably developed into a deep, rich laugh.
Some days it really did pay to get up in the morning.
* * * * * * * * *
Sydney stacked the files neatly on his desk and turned off the light, prepared at last to put an end to the day. Now that he knew Miss Parker, Jarod, and Ethan were safe, he could relax and allow himself to sleep.
He picked up his briefcase and started to walk out of the office, when his cell phone rang. He debated not answering, but decided it could be important. "This is Sydney." No one spoke at the other end, though he could definitely hear breathing. "Hello? Who is this?"
He was on the verge of considering it a prank and hanging up, when a soft voice croaked "Sydney..."
"Jarod?" He barely recognized his protégé's voice. The confident, in-control tone Jarod almost always used was gone, replaced by someone who sounded very near tears. Alarm bells began to go off in his head, and he went back to his chair and sat down. "What's happened?"
"Zoe, she's... she's gone."
"Zoe?" He struggled to put a face with the name. Jarod interacted with so many people on his travels -- and though the Centre eventually caught up with most of them, Sydney wasn't always privy to their discoveries.
"Someone I met… a few months ago."
His inflection said it all. To Sydney's knowledge, Jarod hadn't had a real girlfriend since Nia. He had grown in many ways since then, but his stronger emotions still tended to be raw, and he frequently wore his heart on his sleeve. "She was someone you cared for," he acknowledged.
"Tell me what happened."
Jarod paused, as though trying to find the right words. "They killed her. I killed her." Another pause. "She's dead, Sydney."
The psychiatrist's heart sank. Jarod blamed the Centre -- specifically Lyle -- for the loss of his brother, Kyle. He frequently raged at the way his family had been torn apart, his parents kept from him for so many years. But this loss would be unlike any other. This was an intimate partner, and the pain would run very deep indeed. That the Centre would deliver such a terrible blow only made it worse. "I'm so sorry."
The words came pouring out of Jarod, as though he couldn't hold them back. "I shouldn't have gone back to her. I knew it was a mistake. I knew they could be watching. They're always watching. Always. I just -- I needed --"
Sydney knew what he was trying to say. The Centre hadn't killed Michelle, although they could easily have done so, but she and Jarod had been the bright spots in his otherwise dangerous world. He felt the lack of closeness with both of them to this day. "You needed her," he finished. "You needed the joy she brought into your life. And you needed to make believe, if only for a day or an hour at a time, that you could fall in love and have a life, like everyone else."
"But I'm not like everyone else," Jarod answered, his voice turning bitter. "I'm a white leopard, a laboratory rat. I'm Centre property. And Centre property isn't allowed to have a life."
He was silent again; then his voice hardened, becoming more like the Jarod Syd recognized. "Thank you for listening, Sydney."
"Jarod, wait! Where will you go?"
"I don't know. Right now, I'm not sure it really matters."
Abruptly, he hung up. It was always his habit to end a phone call when he had nothing else to say, but this time Sydney was concerned. From the sound of it, Jarod truly was a loose canon now. There was no telling where his grief and loss would take him.
Only a few moments ago, he had thought it was time to rest… but that time hadn't come after all. Sydney no longer felt the desire to go home. Instead, he would spend the next few hours sitting in his chair, in his darkened office, wondering if in fact a season in hell was just beginning… for all of them.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod placed the pay phone's receiver back in its cradle. For a moment, he leaned against the wall of the booth, trying to gather whatever strength he had left.
Always pay phones. Always on the run. It seemed that, no matter how badly he wanted it, his life never really changed. Everything he touched turned to death, and everyone he cared about was marked for termination.
He would do well to remember that in the future. This time he had let down his guard, and Zoe paid for it with her life. That wouldn't happen again. He would make sure of it.
With that thought, Jarod hefted the small duffel bag over his shoulder, picked up his Halliburton, and disappeared into the darkness.
End of Episode
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