Parker,” Sydney said. “I could hardly see the road at all in this snow.”
Fat, fluffy snowflakes obscured the view as well as the long driveway, but the vague shape of Ammon House loomed gray and indistinct not far ahead. A dark sedan was parked to one side, and Parker stopped her car right behind it. She whipped off her seat belt and bolted out the door, leaving Sydney to bring up the rear.
She headed straight for the front porch, pausing just long enough to glance at Sydney and motion for him to circle around the back way to prevent Jarod from escaping. The door opened easily, and she darted inside.
Sydney pulled his scarf up over his ears, tugged his cap down further onto his head for what meager warmth it would offer, and began to trudge through the knee-deep snow around the side of the house.
And stopped as soon as he heard that familiar voice. He headed toward it, disturbed by how unnaturally weak it sounded. Jarod was distraught; that was obvious from the strained syllables he called out in the falling snow.
Sydney saw him wandering away from the house, staggering aimlessly. The Pretender cupped his bare hands around his mouth and wailed out the woman’s name once more, dropped his hands to his sides and stumbled another few steps, his head bowed and shoulders drooping. He had no coat, no scarf or hat, and his dark hair and shoulders were thickly dusted with snow. He must have been outside for quite some time.
As quickly as he could manage, Sydney caught up to him. “Jarod!” he called. “You’ll freeze to death! We must get you back inside.” He grasped the young man’s elbow and tried to tow him back toward the house.
Jarod’s arm jerked reflexively out of his grip.
“Zoe!” he called again, his voice hoarse from shouting. “I’m sorry! Please… please come back.”
It seemed that Jarod hadn’t registered his presence. Sydney grabbed him, turned him around and tried to get his attention, but the young man’s eyes remained fixed on something he alone could see off in the distance. He looked right past Sydney, as if he wasn’t even there.
“My God,” Sydney whispered, frightened for his protégé’s sanity. He forced Jarod to move, towing and pushing him toward the house. “We’ve got to get you inside. You’ve got to get warm, Jarod!”
“Sydney?” Parker called from the kitchen doorway. “What the hell’s he doing out there without a coat?”
“Help me, Miss Parker!” he ordered. “He’s not himself.”
“I have to find her,” Jarod moaned. “I know she’s here. I saw her.”
Sydney glanced up at Jarod’s haunted eyes. “Zoe’s dead, Jarod,” he said gently. “Remember? We have to go inside now.”
Whatever determination had kept Jarod going now seemed to wither away. He let Sydney and Miss Parker haul him back into the kitchen. Sydney searched the house for his coat and wrapped him in it, then found the remains of the fire in the bedroom and hustled him upstairs to sit him down in front of it.
“Would you see if you can find something warm for him to drink?” Sydney asked his companion, brushing the snow off Jarod as the younger man stared into the flames.
Parker left without a word. In the kitchen she found the makings for coffee and started some percolating; while she waited, she glanced into the adjoining rooms. She had seen the equipment upstairs but gave it no mind; now she examined the items Jarod had left in the kitchen.
“Oh, my God. He really is a Ghostbuster,” she murmured. “But he should have remembered to turn the damn machines on.” She poured a cup for herself and drank it down, then another for Jarod. She carried the pot upstairs with her in case Sydney decided he wanted some as well.
The Belgian was already psychoanalyzing Jarod when she returned, and apparently making a little progress. Jarod was responding occasionally, but not often enough for them to be sure that he recognized their presence as real. Sydney gave Parker a worried glance as she handed over the mug of hot coffee.
“I’m going to check the road,” she told Sydney. “You take care of him.”
She was back in five minutes. “Looks like we’re going to have to stay the night,” she announced, keeping her voice low. “It’s getting dark, and there’s no way I’d be able to get us back to the main road with this much snow on everything.” She sighed. “And maybe by morning you’ll have gotten Jarod’s head back on straight.”
Sydney said nothing. He lifted the cup to Jarod’s lips, and instructed him to drink. “He’s in no shaped to be moved anyway, Miss Parker. Perhaps you should try to find a comfortable place to sleep. I’ll be on watch till morning.”
“Good luck,” she told him.
Oddly enough, she found that she meant it.
* * * * * * * * *
Parker growled out the window at the snow. The weak light from the fire illuminated only the flakes nearest the window, but those were driving by on a strong, nearly horizontal wind. She could hear it howling outside, and the old house responded with a weary groan. She pulled her coat tighter about her and returned to the fireplace to add on more wood. The room was warming, but would retain the chill throughout the night.
With an unhappy glance at the shabby twin bed in the corner, she heaved a sigh of resignation.
"Why couldn't you find your haunted house in Southern California, Jarod?" she asked the empty room. Parker dragged the old wrought iron bed closer to the fireplace and lay down on it, wrapping herself up in her coat. It was going to be a miserable night, but at least she would have the satisfaction of hauling Jarod back to the Centre with her as soon as the snow let up. If she and Sydney were stuck in that dismal weather, Jarod was as well. Small comfort, to be sure, but enough to get her through the night.
Her belly growled, reminding her that she hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast. But she had taken stock of Jarod's supplies, and there wouldn't be enough for all of them to last more than a day or so. She could go hungry for the night, promising herself a good hot meal when she got back to civilization. And maybe she'd make Jarod watch while she ate it.
She closed her eyes, turning her thoughts to Gabriel and the amazing discovery she had made with him earlier in the day. He really was a special child, but she had more reason now than ever to be concerned with his future. She knew he couldn't possibly understand the ramifications of his gift, and worried that he might inadvertently let someone else know he could sense Jarod's whereabouts. At his age, he would not understand her directive not to speak about Jarod, and she wasn’t sure he wouldn’t let something slip. She would have to spend as much time with him as possible, to help train him that Jarod was a taboo subject. The vision of his dimpled smile coaxed her gently into uneasy dreams, and her breathing slowed as she curled up in the warmth of her Burberry wool.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod stared into the flames, his coat draped over his shoulders as he sat on the floor before the hearth. Suddenly he took a deep breath, and blinked. For the first time in hours, he realized where he was and sat up straight, glancing around the room.
“I was wondering how long you were going to be lost,” Sydney said from behind him. “I was getting worried about you.”
Jarod flinched at the sound of that familiar voice, almost turning to look over his shoulder, but chose to resist the temptation. There was no reason to look, after all. He knew Sydney wasn’t really there.
The Pretender watched the fire actively now, contemplating how completely he had been consumed by the fantasy brought on by the atmosphere in that house. His need to have some sort of final closure with Zoe had gotten the better of him, and even now he couldn’t trust his perception of what was real and what was not. But he was tired. He felt as though he hadn’t slept in a week, and rose stiffly, slowly, pulling the coat about him as he lumbered over to the bed.
“Are you all right, Jarod?” Sydney asked softly. He sat on a dusty, overstuffed chair, book in hand, his glasses settled low on his nose. An electric lantern Jarod had brought with him sat on the nearby nightstand, illuminating the pages so Sydney could read. “Do you remember what happened?”
“I’m tired, Sydney,” he said to the apparition. “You can’t imagine how tired I am.” Wearily, he circled the bed, sat heavily on the mattress and doffed his coat, head bowed with fatigue.
“Let me see your hands,” Sydney suggested. “You were on the verge of frostbite when we brought you inside.”
Jarod ignored him. “I’ll be fine. I’m always fine. Always land on my feet.” He slumped over sideways, struggled into the sleeping bag and turned his back to the mirage beside him.
Sydney let him settle in before speaking again. “Do you want to talk about her, the girl you lost?”
A bitter laugh whispered across Jarod’s lips. “Why would I want to do that, Sydney? I’ll never get the blood off my hands. Not Zoe’s, or the hundreds of other people who have died because of me. This is a fitting place for me, you know. A haunted house.” He snickered. “For a haunted man.”
The Belgian started to speak again, but Jarod cut him off. “Leave me alone, Sydney. I want to get some sleep. Haven’t I earned that?”
With a sigh, Sydney closed his book and turned his gaze to the amber ballet in the fireplace. “Of course you have, Jarod. And much more,” he murmured. “Including the freedom I can’t give you.”
But the younger man didn’t hear him. He was already fast asleep, sliding headlong into dark dreams.
* * * * * * * * *
A sound startled Parker into wakefulness. She glanced at the fireplace, and caught the last glimpse of a shower of sparks as a log fell off the iron grate onto the stone floor of the hearth. Parker sighed with relief and turned away from the flames, facing the dark end of the room.
"There's my Angel," said a soft voice that she recognized immediately.
Parker lifted her head and squinted toward the shadows. A familiar shape wafted toward her, dressed in white. Catherine Parker came to sit gracefully on the side of the bed, and smiled down at her.
I'm dreaming, she told herself. But it was a good dream. She smiled up at that face so like her own, and held out her hand. "Mama," she murmured warmly.
"Baby, I've missed you so much," Catherine told her. "You're so grown up now."
Parker sat up and let the coat fall away from her shoulders. "Everybody says I look just like you, Mama."
Catherine's smile melted. "Yes. But you're not like me, are you?"
"What do you mean?"
"All that anger inside you," Catherine explained. "All that hate. Your father poisoned your soul, smothered all that was good and joyous in you. And you let him."
Parker's auburn brows knitted together. "What? Mama, I--"
"I gave you everything you'd need to be strong and kind and full of love," Catherine whispered sadly. "And you buried it under a mountain of mistrust and selfishness. What happened to you, Angel? Why did you throw away everything I tried to teach you?"
"Look at you. Look at what you're doing with your life, darling. Persecuting that poor boy, doing everything you can to drag him back to Hell. Is that what you think I'd want you to do?" She rose from the bed and smoothed down her dress, gazing down at her daughter with distinct disapproval written on her elegant features. "That's not the little girl I loved. I don't know who you are."
She backed away, toward the darkness.
Parker scrambled toward the side of the bed, her legs tangling up in her coat. She threw it off savagely and vaulted off the dusty mattress, stumbling to her feet in the chilly room. "Mama, wait!" she called, following the pale form into the shadows. Feeling her way forward with her hands, she hurried after the image, heedless of danger. Panic and desire warred within her, desire to catch the apparition and make peace with her; fear that she had lost that chance.
"Mama!" she called. "Mama, come back!"
Faster she padded barefoot into the darkness, uncertain now if she was dreaming or awake. She could sense a wall to her left and reached out to touch it with her fingertips. The blackness was so complete she had utterly lost her bearings, and could barely remember the layout of the upstairs rooms. She wasn't certain if she was still in the bedroom or in the hallway outside it. All she knew was that she had to catch up with the pale shape still ahead, moving away more quickly.
"Mama," she whispered tightly, blinking back tears, her heart clenching from the sting of her mother's rebuke.
And then she was pitching forward, her left foot coming down on air as she stepped off the landing above the stairs. Her foot twisted as it impacted against the step below it, throwing her sideways in the dark. Instinct made her grab out to her right, and her fingers caught the railing just before she tumbled head first down the stairs. Her body swung crazily toward the banister, but her grip held and she caught herself, banging hard against the steps and the railing.
For a moment she just sat there, precariously balanced on the stairs, her muscles throbbing where she had impacted against the hard wood. A sob choked her, fear welling up in her throat as she thought about what had almost happened. Carefully, she pulled herself to her feet and followed the railing back up to the landing, feeling her way back to the bedroom by the wan glow of the fire.
Limping, she took a seat on the far side of the bed and added more wood to the flames. She slipped her coat on, wrapped it around her, and decided to wait for morning without benefit of sleep. She didn't want to close her eyes in that place again.
The skin on the back of her neck and sides of her face rippled with gooseflesh as her hair stood on end.
"Don't mess with me," she said aloud to the room. "Or I'll set fire to this place before I leave."
She rubbed her arms and stoked the fire in her soul, glancing at her watch to see how long she'd have to wait for sunup.
* * * * * * * * *
Sydney rose and carried the lantern with him, taking the book downstairs to look for another. He replaced the volume on the bookshelf where he’d found it, and held up the lantern to better read the book spines. This time, he chose a fictional novel, carried it into the living room and pulled the dust cover off the sofa to make himself comfortable.
He set the lantern up, adjusted his position to take advantage of the light, and checked his watch before delving into the first page of the story.
Hours to go until morning.
He glanced out the window and was relieved to see that it had stopped snowing. Once the sun was up and they had scraped some of the snow off the car, they’d be able to leave that dreary place. Driving would be treacherous, but he was certain they would make it back to the highway eventually. He certainly didn’t want to spend another night in that house, even if it did mean taking Jarod back to the Centre.
The story was interesting, set in Switzerland in the 1940s. But he couldn’t keep his mind on the text, and found himself reading the same paragraph for the third time. He closed his eyes for a moment to rest them, reclining his head against the plaster covered wall behind the sofa.
Dachau loomed up out of the darkness in his memory. The smell of unwashed bodies crowded into too-small quarters, the stench of death filling his nostrils, the prickling of fear as he watched people around him disappearing daily… He clung to Jacob, huddled in a corner with his twin, both of them trying to make themselves as small and invisible as possible, so they would not be chosen…
Sydney started awake when the book slipped out of his lap and landed with a slap on the floor.
“You remember what it was like,” said the echo of his own smooth, cultured voice from the darkness just outside the lantern’s glow. “You remember how we felt, uncertain what horrors would be visited upon us with each new day.”
At first he was afraid of the voice, its sudden appearance from nowhere. But Jacob eased closer, just enough for Sydney to see his face, still so young, before the accident, before their final separation. He relaxed again, happy to see this spectre reappear in his life. “Of course I remember, Jacob. How can I ever forget?”
Jacob’s gaze rolled slowly upward, then back down to make eye contact again with his twin. “Have you never watched Jarod sleep, brother?”
Sydney shook his head. “He deserves a little privacy, here and there. And I have to sleep as well. You know that.”
“But not tonight.”
“Afraid of the dark, Sydney?”
“Afraid of what might be happening to Jarod.”
“He’s been through a great deal,” Jacob agreed. “Much more than anyone was meant to suffer.” He drifted to the couch and sat down at the far end. “You remember what it’s like to suffer in that way, don’t you? You still dream about it. You still smell Dachau in the shadows.”
Sydney said nothing, and dropped his gaze to the book on the floor. He bent to pick it up.
“We knew what we were doing,” Jacob went on. “But we were so caught up in the advancement of science that we chose not to think about it. It was easier that way, not to deal with our consciences.” He grinned. “We made some fascinating discoveries together, didn’t we?”
“Yes, we did. Through our work, we have contributed greatly to the welfare of mankind. It’s something we should be proud of achieving.”
“We should be, yes… But at whose expense?” Jacob let the subtle accusation hang in the air between them.
Sydney looked at his brother. “We also suffered, Jacob.”
His twin nodded. “But we were grown men when we came to the Centre. We knew what the experiments would do to vulnerable young psyches. We knew how much more deeply the young feel terror, how profoundly it affects them. We knew how desperately children need the security of family, of roots, of knowing who they are… and yet we cut Jarod and the other children off from their lives, from the world, and left them floating in darkness, unable to find their way out. We knew what it would cost them, and we complied with project management anyway.”
A muscle twitched in Sydney’s jaw. “I did what I could to blunt the trauma,” he argued. “I got rid of as many of the more damaging projects as I could. I protected him the best way I knew how.”
“It wasn’t enough. You knew that. You knew what was happening to him. What is still happening to him.”
A distant cry of denial from somewhere above echoed through the house. Sydney recognized Jarod’s raspy voice instantly. He rose to go to his protégé.
“You can’t fix it now, Sydney,” Jacob reminded him. “It’s too late. What’s done is done. Jarod’s wounds will never heal.”
Sydney faced his twin, tears glistening in his eyes, and blinked them hastily away. “He can recover. I can help him.”
Jacob chuckled. “Like you helped him find his parents?” he accused. “Like you helped him come to terms with his guilt over taking a life with his own hands? Like you helped him deal with this most recent grief?” He shook his head, still smiling. “You’ll be helping him into his grave shortly, won’t you, brother?”
“No. I want to help him come to terms with his emotions.”
Jacob’s dark eyes burned into his. “How can you do that when you’re striving every day to send him back to Hell?”
“I can help him,” Sydney argued, but the assurance in his voice sounded dreadfully hollow in his own ears.
“Help him, then,” Jacob ordered harshly. “Take the pillow while he sleeps, and help him find peace. You’ve taken lives before. Once more won’t matter.”
Hot anger flushed Sydney’s face. His hands clenched into fists. “How could you suggest such a thing?”
Jacob shrugged. “You and I hunted down the men responsible for our parents’ deaths. We took pleasure in meting out justice. You particularly enjoyed squeezing the life out of Major Reiner and Herr Doctor Gerber with your own hands, while I watched. How different could it be to offer peace to one in such desperate need, than it was to take vengeance on those who so richly deserved it?”
“It was different then!” Sydney growled. “It was war.”
“People kill each other without a second thought in war,” Jacob reminded him casually. “It’s what war is about. But tormenting a soul for the sake of knowledge… is that what peace means to you, Sydney?”
“No.” Something in his chest was on fire. Sydney flexed his left hand, aware of the numbing pain demanding his attention. “No. We had no right…”
Jacob stood, meeting his brother eye to eye. “Then do the right thing, for once. End Jarod’s eternal suffering. Be kind to him for a change. Help him.”
Sydney recoiled from the apparition, turning and stumbling out of the living room. He made his way to the stairs, relieved that the pain eased as he put more distance between himself and that terrible vision. He could never harm Jarod, he told himself.
But the truth of what the vision had said haunted him all the way up the stairs. He stood over the bed and watched Jarod toss and turn, twitching and crying out, his face revealing the torment that he suffered even in his dreams.
“My God,” Sydney whispered. “What have I done?”
His mouth was dry as he reached for the dusty pillow on the mattress beside Jarod’s head. Tears filled his eyes again, and this time, he did not blink them away. He studied the lines of the young man’s handsome face, imprinting it on his memory, and drew the pillow against his chest.
“I’m sorry, Jarod,” he breathed. “Please forgive me.”
* * * * * * * * *
Inhaling to scream, Jarod shot upright in the bed and held his breath, stifling the noise, trying to get his bearings.
Ammon House. That's where he was. And he had overstayed his welcome.
He rose, and thought about packing up his things. The equipment would take considerable time to move, but when he checked the instruments again, he found them off once more. None of them had been on long enough to collect any data at all, so there was no point in hauling them away.
Jarod felt no closer to an answer than he had been when he arrived. Except for the buckets emptying out in the kitchen and the faulty equipment, there was no real evidence of any supernatural occurrences at the house. Everything that had happened to him had come out of his own psyche, out of his guilt and sorrow.
Except, perhaps, his brief moments with Sydney, but even that could be explained away.
He padded quietly downstairs and took note of additional movement of his kitchen supplies. A thought struck him, and he crept quietly to the upper rooms for a quick check. He was fairly certain ghosts didn't sleep, and upon finding Miss Parker stretched out on another bed down the hall from his room, he decided it was definitely time to leave.
His watch confirmed that dawn was still a few hours away. Hopefully she wouldn't waken till he was clear of the place, but he wasn't taking any chances. He collected his coat and shoes, left via the kitchen door and finished dressing outside, in case there were others in the house, as he suspected. Digging his car out of the snow was no quick task, but a hasty pursuit would be out of the question for the Centre operatives, since their car was covered as well.
Luck held, and in half an hour he started the engine and eased down the long driveway toward the highway without any sign of the others on his tail.
He didn't like the idea of leaving them alone in that place, but he had no choice.
It had only been his imagination plaguing him, after all.
Miss Parker and the others were perfectly safe.
He glanced at the rearview mirror uneasily, and hoped that was all it was.
* * * * * * * * *
Miss Parker woke to the pale light of early morning. Her head ached. Her left ankle was swollen and tender from her fall on the staircase. Her muscles hurt, and she felt as if she had been in a fight for her life. But she forced herself off the dusty bed, smoothed her hair into place and headed downstairs to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. She could smell it, and it tugged at her senses as a necessary requirement for wakefulness.
Sydney stood in the kitchen, pouring the first cup from the small coffee pot. Upon seeing her, he picked up another cup and poured for her. “Did you sleep?” he asked congenially.
“Not a lot,” she croaked. “Coffee.”
He handed one to her, and she drained it in three swallows.
“How soon can we get out of this hell hole?” she asked, holding the empty cup out for more.
“Whenever you like,” he answered slowly.
“Where’s Jarod?” she asked. “Still sleeping?”
The coffee pot hovered in mid-air for a moment. “He’s gone, Miss Parker.” More coffee spilled out of the spout, but this time the stream of fragrant black liquid was trembling, almost missing its mark.
“What do you mean, he’s gone? On foot? In that snow? He’ll freeze to death.”
Sydney shrugged. “I haven’t been outside to check for footprints, or to see if his car is gone,” he replied flatly. “But he isn’t in the house. I’ve checked twice.”
She sighed. “Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. And I don’t want to stay in this place any longer than necessary. How soon can you be ready to leave?”
The Belgian set the coffee pot down. “Let me get my coat.”
Half an hour later, they had the snow cleared from their car and were motoring slowly down the ice-covered lane, driving in the ruts made by Jarod’s car some hours earlier.
Parker kept her eyes on the road, or what she could see of it, but in the quiet of the car she felt the need to speak. “Have any dreams last night, Syd?”
He was silent for a long time, gazing out the window at the white-blanketed scenery. “A nightmare or two. How about you?”
“Aside from an episode of sleepwalking, nothing special,” she lied. Suddenly, she didn’t want to talk about her dream. She could feel the house behind her, standing guard over the barren landscape, watching her retreat, its malevolent spirit pleased with her pain. She shook off the feeling, reminding herself that buildings were not living beings, and the picture her imagination painted was simply due to fatigue and the creepy atmosphere provided by Jarod’s research material.
It had been nothing more than a bad dream. But it had been so vivid, more real than any dream she’d ever had before.
She turned up the heat to try to break the chill stealing over her, and took one last glance in the rear-view mirror as the house disappeared into the distance.
A gust of wind howled around the car, and she jumped in her seat.
The noise sounded eerily like laughter.
End of Episode
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