by: William Lucas ((Header art by Nicola Turola C.))
When a ghost from the past shows up at a high school reunion, it threatens to change not only those in attendance, but the greater world…
Nicholas Segern’s heart was racing, his palms damp. Tingling, he stood alone on the concrete landing outside the Stoneharvest Clubhouse, attempting several times to dry his hands by vigorously rubbing his palms over his faded blue jeans. Then, slowly breathing in the cool night air – and willing his heart rate to slow – he gathered the courage to enter. Reaching for the clubhouse door, he found his palms damp and weeping again.
How many times this process had been repeated, Nicholas couldn’t say. It felt like he’d been standing at the clubhouse’s entrance for an hour or more. In truth, only a few minutes had passed, although in a way, he felt like he had been standing on that doorstep for years.
There were close to a hundred people on the other side of that door, many whose lives would be turned upside down the moment he crossed its threshold.
Unforgivable, Patricia thought. Absolutely unforgivable.
She’d arrived at the office seven minutes late. And in her line of work, every minute counted.
Unforgivable, she thought again as she tossed her purse onto her desk.
“Hey,” a familiar voice said.
Patricia turned to see her assistant poking his head inside her office.
“The monthlies are in,” he said. “Want me to forward ’em to you? Or do you wanna wait a bit?”
His tone was sympathetic, almost apologetic. He knew this was the hardest part of Patricia’s job. The one day she looked forward to the least. Most of her time at the Center was spent coordinating local, state, and national law enforcement agencies’ efforts to locate missing children. Sharing leads, gathering or disseminating information that might result in one of the lost being found and making sure their names didn’t move from the “Missing” column to the one labeled “Gone, but not forgotten.”
It was fulfilling work. Time-consuming, important work.
But at 9:00 a.m., on the fifteenth of every month, like clockwork, Patricia was dealt this same blow, and was reminded of just how futile all of her efforts could be.
“No, it’s okay,” she said, finally. “You can send them to me.”
He nodded, and a minute later Patricia’s laptop chimed, announcing a new email message.
Each month, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children sent to each regional office an updated list of children and teens whose cases remained open after thirty days. Most reported cases of missing children were runaways. Troubled kids who were either rebelling against or, more often, simply seeking attention from their parents. Many were found within days. Most were reunited with their families within a week.
That left the remaining four percent of cases that involved abduction or foul play. These kids were rarely found. And when they were, the family reunion was never a joyous one.
Adding these additional entries into the local database was a menial task Patricia could have easily delegated to her subordinates. But as the Center’s Director, she felt compelled to inspect each entry. To read each name. To commit, as best she could, each face to memory.
She was a quarter of the way through the newly arrived list when her heart stopped.
“Oh my God,” she whispered.
The clubhouse looked just as Nicholas remembered. A rustic, single-story structure, its walls were constructed of locally quarried limestone. Two wooden pillars – Texas pines that had been sacrificed for just this purpose – stood guard at the clubhouse entrance and supported the eave he’d been hiding under for the last ten minutes. The wrought iron fence to the south of the clubhouse had been torn down, making way for additional parking. But parts of it had been repurposed and now decorated – or perhaps barred – the clubhouse windows.
Nicholas had fond memories of this place. The senior prom had been held here. So too was Scotty Thompson’s eighteenth birthday party. Although he and Scotty hadn’t been close, he’d attended because Mary had been invited. And he and Mary had been inseparable.
It was the thought of Mary that finally moved Nicholas. That ultimately gave him the will to reach for the weathered brass handle, grasp it – wet hands be damned – and open the door.
Stepping inside, Nicholas had just enough time to read the large bold letters on the banner that hung prominently from the rafters before hearing the collective gasp of the fifty-somethings mingling beneath it.
Georgetown High School
Class of 1981
It took several minutes for Patricia’s shock to wear off.
She’d retrieved an old record pulled from the Center’s database – one whose accompanying photograph she’d stared at a hundred times – and had positioned the images side by side on her computer monitor. The hairstyle was different and the clothes in the first photo were dated. Even though each picture had been taken from different angles, the resemblance between the two was unmistakable.
Forcing her attention from the computer monitor, Patricia reached for the office phone and quickly dialed a number.
“NCIC,” a voice on the other end of the line answered.
“Kevin, it’s Patricia,” she said. “At Austin CMEC.”
Kevin Miller was with the FBI’s National Crime Information Center branch in Dallas and they’d worked together on a dozen cases over the past several years.
Only one had resulted in a victory.
“Patricia,” Kevin said warmly. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, I’m hoping you can do me a favor,” she replied.
“Sure. Whaddya need?”
“I was hoping to use your facial recognition software.”
“Facial recognition?” Kevin asked. “You mean age progression?”
The Center often used the FBI’s age progression software to produce a photograph of what children who’d been missing for years might look like years later. It was surprisingly accurate, but not what Patricia needed.
“No,” Patricia said. “I mean facial recognition.”
“That system,” he said finally. “It’s…internal. I’m not sure I could get you access even if I wanted to. What’s this all about?”
“What if I gave you access to our database?” Patricia asked, ignoring Kevin’s question. “My username and password. Could you run it through your facial recognition software?”
“Your entire database?” Kevin replied. “That could take hours.”
Patricia knew she was asking a lot. She could easily send a small segment of the database to be analyzed. Bury the two records she was really interested in amongst a larger group to ensure the results. But that would be easily spotted.
“Please,” she said. “It’s important. I think our system’s been hacked.”
She didn’t like to lie. But she had no choice.
“You haven’t aged a day!”
Similar exclamations could be heard throughout every corner of the clubhouse. It wasn’t true, of course. But Mary accepted, and returned, Karen’s compliment with a smile and a warm embrace.
Karen had been a close friend of Mary’s in high school. They’d grown up together in San Gabriel Oaks, back when the neighborhood was still in its infancy, with new homes being erected on an almost daily basis. Those same homes were now almost unrecognizable – burdened now by age and neglect.
The same could be said of her classmates. The years hadn’t been good to the Class of ’81, Mary thought. Though she did take comfort in seeing that time had treated them all with equal cruelty. Even the popular kids – those who at the time seemed to glow with a youthful energy, a vibrancy never to be extinguished – were now also wrinkled and gray, fat and balding.
Still, you paid them the compliment. It was just what you did at these things.
“How do you do it?” Mary asked.
“Botox. And I haven’t eaten in three months,” Karen whispered with a smile.
They laughed, both recognizing how undeserving the compliments were.
“It’s been too long. How have you been?” Karen asked, with just a hint of concern.
“Good,” Mary assured her. “I’ve been good.”
Mary took a deep breath, turning her attention to the glass of wine in her hand.
“She’s okay. Still here. Well,” she corrected herself. “In Austin. She still holds out hope.”
Her eyes still on her drink, Mary suspected that one glass wasn’t going to be enough tonight.
And she was right for a moment later, the clubhouse door creaked open, and every muscle in Mary’s body went limp.
Nicholas stuffed his hands into his jeans pockets and allowed the clubhouse door to shut behind him before venturing further in. Daniel Nguyen, one of only two Asian kids that had been in his graduating class, manned the reception table. Seeing Nicholas, his eyes went wide and his jaw dropped.
Kindred expressions greeted Nicholas as he surveyed the assembled Class of ’81, their faces painted with varying shades of disbelief, utter shock and fear.
A large foam board had been set up beside the reception table. The words “In Loving Memory” were stenciled above a half dozen photographs of classmates who’d passed away in the years since graduation.
Josh Graham. Nichole Anderson, Nicholas read.
Nicholas was saddened to see Scotty Thompson’s photo occupying the center spot in the last row. What didn’t surprise him, however, was finding his own photo right beside it.
Mary involuntarily released her grip on her glass of wine, sending it crashing loudly to the floor.
Then all went quiet.
Not a sound could be heard throughout the clubhouse except the steady shuffling of Nicholas’s feet as he made his way across the room towards Mary. The others in the room, as if knowing exactly who Nicholas had come for, parted and made clear a path to where Mary was standing. The clearing afforded Mary a clear view of what simply could not be. Yet somehow was.
A moment later Nicholas was standing before Mary. Mere inches away, she carefully studied his features. Nicholas’ hazel eyes and dark brown hair, even the small scar above his right eyebrow, it was all there. But it was his voice that finally convinced her.
“Hi Mare,” Nicholas whispered, using the pet name that he, and only he, had used for her.
Mary felt a surge of emotions rise within her. Physical sensations that were impossible to identify. They twisted around each other, folding into and and on top of one another, blurring into a single, blinding white numbness that engulfed Mary, cementing her in place.
She didn’t know – and at that point really didn’t care – what the punishment in Texas was for causing injury to a child. But when the paralysis finally lifted, she did the only thing that seemed appropriate, and slapped Nicholas hard across the face. In doing so, she’d just committed a crime. An assault. Against a minor.
“Well,” Kevin Miller said. “You were right Patricia. Your system’s definitely been compromised.”
It was 8:15 p.m. when Kevin had finally phoned with the results of the records scan. A tinge of guilt ran through Patricia again. It was well past nine his time.
“So you found a match,” Patricia said.
“No,” Kevin replied. “I didn’t find a match.”
“What?” she asked, confused.
“I found hundreds.”
After striking Nicholas, Mary had headed for the nearest exit. Nicholas had followed and found her standing on the clubhouse deck, leaning on the banister, her back to him.
The rippling of the San Gabriel river below and the sounds of its resident wildlife filled the night air around them.
“How is this possible?” Mary whispered.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Mary turned to him, her eyes ablaze.
“Don’t make me hit you again,” she said.
“Honestly, Mare,” Nicholas said. “I don’t know.”
Mary let a short laugh escape.
“You…” Mary began. She stopped, knowing how ironic the words would be. Tonight of all nights. She was afraid that speaking them would make real what she still hoped was nothing more than a vivid, cruel dream.
“You haven’t aged a day,” she finally said flatly.
“I haven’t aged in many, many days,” Nicholas replied.
He approached slowly, and took up a spot beside her. Silhouetted in moonlight, she was more beautiful than he remembered.
“How?” she demanded again.
“I told you. I don’t know.”
“Then why?” she asked. “Why now? Why here?” The words came fast. Every thought that had run through her mind over the last few minutes, over the last thirty years, came flooding out of her. Demanding of the young boy beside her the answers that only he could provide.
“After all this time. God, do you know how long we waited? How long we looked for you?” she asked. “Hoping for a phone call, a letter. Anything! Afraid every day that the police would come knocking on the door instead? Do you have any idea what that was like?”
“I’m sorry, Mare,” Nicholas said softly. “I had no choice.”
His apology didn’t satisfy her.
“Why the hell are you here?” she asked bitterly.
“For you,” he said. “Mary, I’m here because of you.”
The Center’s office printer was frustratingly slow.
“C’mon, c’mon,” Patricia said. Despite her urging, the printer continued to crank out the photographs at a snail’s pace.
Unwilling to wait any longer, she quickly collected what pages she could and stuffed them into a plain manila folder. She grabbed her purse and left the office in a rush, not bothering to close the office door behind her.
“You were the only one I ever let in,” Nicholas said. “The only person I ever allowed myself to get close to. To love. And I’ve thought about you every day since.”
Mary laughed again.
“You can’t be serious!” she said, her head still swimming. The current threatening to sweep her away. To drag her under. “What did you think would happen here? I’m fifty-two years old! And you’re…you’re still a…a boy.”
The unreal nature – the insanity – of it all swept through Mary again. It was difficult to look at him. But even harder to look away. She felt a gentle tug at her insides, something she hadn’t felt in years. A longing she knew she could not allow, and yet could not control.
“I’m one hundred and fourteen years old, Mare. And I’m tired. Of hiding. Of being alone. Of all of it”
“Don’t,” she warned. “Don’t you dare talk to me about being alone. You have no idea what it is to be alone! Do you know how people looked at me? How they talked about me behind my back? My parents disowned me, Nick! I was eighteen and they left me alone to raise our…” she stopped short. Something over Nicholas’s shoulder caught her attention.
“Raise what?” he asked.
“Hi dad,” a voice behind Nicholas replied.
Patricia had had all day to come to terms with it, to incorporate into her worldview what this morning had seemed impossible.
It was Nicholas who, for the first time tonight, was unprepared. His turn to stare in disbelief, to grapple with what this young woman had just said. She was, after all, twice his age. Albeit in appearance only.
Nicholas looked to Mary – who made no attempt to deny the situation – then back to Patricia.
“I…” he stammered, unsure of what to say.
“You,” Patricia said, taking a step forward. “May be a lot of things. But you are not alone. Not anymore.”
She held up the file folder she’d brought with her, its contents half an inch thick.
“There are more like you,” she said. “There are lots more like you.”