Bryant’s windshield wipers put up a good fight, but the rain was too strong. It spit and splattered at just the right moments, making it hard for him to watch for the entrance to the cemetery. Darkness swelled and the streetlights reflected off the shiny asphalt, adding to the degree of difficulty. Finally, he found the sliver of gravel to his left and swerved into the opening just ahead of the oncoming traffic.
As his tires crunched down the narrow path, he sensed his car sinking into the softness of the waterlogged trail. He instinctively sped up to displace the weight of the vehicle. Bryant found his usual parking spot at the top of a rise and therefore dryer than anywhere else.
He got out and headed to the gravesites with a preoccupation he hadn’t encountered on previous trips. He stood over the two graves and stared. The nearby streetlights offered some illumination, but not much. The headstones were legible, mostly because of his familiarity. For some reason his thoughts crept toward Margo Sutter. The girl needed help and maybe Sullivan was right. Maybe Bryant was the best candidate to help her. But psychiatry wasn’t something you dabbled in part-time. He could do more damage by taking her to a certain level of psychoanalysis, then leave before she could manage the disease on her own. Before the accident, Bryant would consume himself with his patients and revel in the ease of his therapeutic choices. Now, he was being drawn into something he’d been trying to divorce for months.
A thought startled him back to life. He’d forgotten to bring flowers. Staring down at the resting site of his wife and daughter, he reached into his pocket and furiously groped for the one thing he’d always brought with him, but came up empty. A Candy Kiss. He’d always placed a Kiss on Megan’s gravestone. Her favorite. How irresponsible could he possibly be? It was the only real thing he had left to do and he’d forgotten.
Then something else occurred to him. He wasn’t crying. This realization made his face hot with anger. What was wrong? How was it possible to stand over the graves of his two loves and not cry? When had he become so calloused? Or was he so preoccupied by a patient he barely knew that he didn’t have the capacity to regain his emotional footing? Bryant looked at the dates engraved on Megan’s headstone; the brevity of time usually brought a morose swelling of tears. Beads of water trickled down his face from the rain, but nothing else. He was changing and he didn’t like it one bit. He didn’t deserve to live painlessly.
There was movement in his periphery and he stiffened as a small frame came out of the darkness. Between a stand of trees, a thin shadow slowly stepped forward. The girl came closer until she was only a few feet away and Bryant could see her ponytail and white skin.
The girl studied the wet ground. “I’m lost,” she said.
Bryant looked around at their location within the cemetery. The main road was only fifty yards away. “Well, how did you get here?”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.” Margo looked back over her shoulder. “I was visiting my family and it occurred to me that I don’t belong here.”
Bryant stood quiet and listened.
“I belong up there.” Margo pointed to the sky. “I have this feeling that I’m down here for a reason. Like I’m supposed to be doing something, but I’m not sure what it is. Does that make any sense, Dr. Bryant?”
He cleared his throat. “Actually, it makes more sense than you think.”
He had to be careful now—she was treading into deep water. “You lose your entire family to an accident which you survived. It’s only natural to feel guilty. It’s almost a necessary component to the process of healing.”
“That’s what Dr. Sullivan said, but there’s more to it. It’s more complicated.” Margo’s shoes sank into the soft grass. She lifted her right foot and watched water puddle up into its imprint. This simple motion seemed to keep her preoccupied.
“You’re too young to know how powerful the psyche can be.”
“That’s just it,” she said. “I don’t feel any guilt. It’s like I died in that accident and this person took over my body and there’s this mission I’m supposed to accomplish, but . . .”
Margo chewed on her lower lip while watching her shoes get saturated. Bryant knew better than to speak. She needed time to gather her thoughts.
The rain had slowed to a drizzle while Margo kept her attention on the sloshing of her feet. “I haven’t been completely honest with you.”
He put his hands in his pocket and waited.
“The aliens,” she said, “they told me to keep you here, in Chandler. At least one of the voices did. Another voice told me to let you go.”
There was a battle going on in her mind and it needed sorting out. Bryant looked down at his family and could practically hear Megan admonish him for allowing this girl to dangle there without his help. His daughter had always hated when people would disrespect the needy. He knew too well how much Margo Sutter needed someone. Someone precisely like him.
Until then, Bryant was hesitant to move forward without an agenda. He couldn’t afford to have another incident like Jeff’s on his watch. His form of therapy required months of asking questions and listening. Mostly listening. Staring at Megan’s grave, he summoned the will to probe further, like a surgeon digging deeper for the root of the patient’s disease.
“Were you very religious before the accident?” he asked.
Margo looked suspiciously at him, as if she might incriminate herself with her response.
Bryant softened his voice. “Margo, you need to trust me.”
Her face tightened, but it quickly turned thoughtful. They stood there in silence while the rain subsided. The only sounds came from passing cars and the water dripping off the saturated leaves around them.
Finally, Margo said, “No. I wasn’t very religious before the crash. We went to church on holidays and maybe once or twice during the year when my mom felt it’d been too long. But we weren’t real deep followers of Christ.”
Bryant smiled. He knew how hard it must’ve been for her to be so forthright. “It’s common for people who’ve been through the type of trauma you’ve experienced to find religion.”
“So you’ve already decided what’s wrong with me?”
“And I think you have a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
“Which means what exactly?”
“Well, that your condition lends itself to kicking in the imaginative portion of the brain.”
“Meaning that these voices I’m hearing aren’t really aliens,” she said. A statement, not a question.
He waited a beat. Sometimes it wasn’t the exact words spoken, but how they were spoken. A quick response showed a definitive answer with no recourse. It worked for a baseball umpire who would never change his call under any circumstance, but a therapist needed to show some flexibility.
“I believe that’s a good possibility, yes,” Bryant said, carefully. “The brain seems to find ways to protect you. If you lose a limb, your brain puts you in shock mode to guard against feeling the full brunt of the accident. It makes sense that your mind would create a scenario to defend you against the guilt of being the only survivor.”
As darkness settled around them, the nearby streetlights fought to shine through the collection of trees which dotted the cemetery. Out of the shadows strolled a small, short-haired dog which tiptoed up to Margo and rubbed his back against her leg.
“Is that your dog?” he asked.
She looked down at the animal and smiled. “No.”
He remembered the stray cat at St. Andrews that had curled up to her in the pew and tried to put the two incidents together somehow, but couldn’t.
“Good doggie,” she murmured.
“You seem to get along well with animals.”
“They’re my only true friends.”
“Friends?” Bryant had so many questions, but they needed to line up properly, like guiding a row of airplanes to the landing strip. One false move could prove disastrous for someone in her mental condition.
“I’m curious about one thing,” he said. “If you don’t have an answer, I’ll understand.”
Her eyes remained steady on the dog leaning against her leg.
“Why did the alien want you to keep me here in Chandler?”
She looked up at him. “You want to know a scarier question?” The dog slipped away from her legs and scurried into the trees. “Why did the other alien want you to leave?”
“Why is that a scarier question?”
She shrugged. “I guess because that alien just scares me more.”
Margo pressed her foot back into the soggy impression she’d made earlier. When she pulled up on her shoe, it made a sucking noise. The silence lingered and it was more important to keep the dialog flowing rather than stopping to mine for gold.
“How often do you—”
“Something about the future,” she said.
“You asked me why the alien wanted me to keep you here. It has something to do with the future, but that’s all I know.”
“Okay,” he said, watching her fidget around in the dark.
She looked up at him with pleading eyes. “Am I crazy, Dr. Bryant?”
“These are all rational feelings for a survivor,” Bryant said. “I can help you get through this. It’s the one thing I know how to do very well.”
Margo lowered her head. “Then tell me whose voices I keep hearing when no one else is around?”
Bryant stuck his hands in his pocket and slowly paced. “Listen, when I was just opening my practice I had this eighty-year-old patient who was struck by lightning. She survived, but it knocked her out for a few minutes. A couple of nights after the incident, she called me at three o’clock in the morning to tell me that a marching band was playing music in her bedroom. She held the phone up for me to hear, but I couldn’t hear a thing. She begged me to come to her house and I did.”
“And I stood next to her in her bedroom while she pressed her hands over her ears and screamed, ‘See what I mean?’”
“But there was no band?”
Bryant shook his head. “Auditory hallucinations. But to her they were as real as if the band was right next to us.”
“That can really happen?”
“Absolutely. Neuroscience is still in its infancy. There’s a lot we’ve yet to understand.”
“So I’m having auditory hallucinations?”
“I’m just saying it’s a possibility. When was the first time you heard the alien voices?”
“Right after the accident. I was lying there on the side of the mountain.”
“That makes sense. Did they happen to tell you where they came from?”
“No. I don’t know. I don’t remember.” Margo seemed to search her memory. “Is that important?”
Bryant smiled. “This isn’t a math test. There are no wrong answers. I can only say that everything you’re telling me fits the mold.”
His words seemed to have a calming effect on her. She moved her head in a tiny nod over and over as if processing the information. Her eyes roamed the graveyard until they landed on Megan’s tombstone. Bryant followed her stare.
“What was she like?” Margo asked.
Bryant’s heart swelled at the question. “She had a great big heart. Her best friend was a little person. Lucy was her name.” He laughed at the image. “It’s hard to be a cool teenager when your best friend is only three and a half feet tall, but that didn’t stop Megan. Lucy was no angel either. A feisty kid. I swear if Lucy was regular height, Megan would’ve ignored her completely. But Megan rallied around the disadvantaged. She never wanted anyone taken for granted.”
“She sounds sweet,” Margo said. “I wish I could’ve known her.”
He nodded. “Yeah. She was a sweet, sweet kid.”
There was a comfortable silence while the two of them gazed at Megan’s grave together. Their eyes met and for a moment they were one. Just two people trying to cope with the loss of their families. Nowhere to turn.
Margo looked up and gave the sky an intent stare, as if she were calculating the direction of the wind. She looked concerned.
Bryant gently placed a hand on her shoulder. “They can’t hurt you, Margo. I won’t let that happen.”
She kept glancing up, splitting her attention between Bryant and the night sky. That’s when Bryant looked up and realized there was a slight break in the clouds. Through the sliver of an opening, the silhouette of a star twinkled down at them.
“I think some of them might be leaving,” Margo said almost to herself.
“The aliens?” Bryant asked.
At first he considered the comment a breakthrough. But breakthroughs came after months or years of therapy and normally came with tears of joy and anguish. This was nothing more than a parenthetical comment.
“Why?” was the only thing he could think to ask.
She shrugged. “I don’t know.” Then her preoccupation with the sky subsided and she seemed to give a new thought some consideration. She looked at Bryant and beamed. “Does this mean I’m cured?”
Bryant couldn’t help but smile. The notion of Margo recovering from PTSD as a result of a ten-minute conversation was ludicrous. She was an open wound searching for a bandage.
His grin faded when he looked over Margo’s shoulder toward Warner Road. A black Ford Expedition rolled past the graveyard. It was going at an ominously slow pace. From behind the Expedition, a grey sedan honked its horn, then pulled around and sped past it, water spitting out from the front tires. The windows in the Expedition were too dark to make out a driver.
“Is that who I think it is?” Bryant asked.
Margo nodded. “He follows me everywhere.”
“Do you know why?”
“He doesn’t trust me.”
She shrugged. “Something about the accident,” she said in a faraway voice.
He wanted to ask which accident, but quickly realized it could only be hers.
“Can you read his thoughts now?” he asked.
“He’s too far.”
The Expedition pulled over to the side of the road and parked along the street.
“It’s his way of telling me he’s here,” she said.
Bryant felt his pulse race hot. He’d despised public officials with a misguided sense of authority and a government agent following an innocent teenage girl sure smelled like one. Bryant started toward the car.
Margo grabbed his arm. “Please don’t,” she said, searching his eyes.
“I thought we had an agreement,” he said.
She loosened her grip and looked over at the idling Expedition; exhaust fumed from its tailpipe like a waiting dragon. “I don’t need to read your mind to know what you’re thinking.”
They both stared at the vehicle with their own thoughts, Bryant thinking he could use a couple of answers. He turned to Margo. “Where will you be tomorrow?”
“Good,” he said, “then I’ll see you there.”
Margo clutched his arm again. “Please don’t.” She shifted her stance, uncomfortable, as if she were trying to keep him from crossing the street. The unease on her face was palpable. Something told him she was hiding something, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.
Bryant took her hand from his arm and gently let go. “I need to do this. For both of us.”
He walked over to Kate’s headstone, bent over and kissed it. He turned and kissed Megan’s headstone, then whispered, “Goodnight girls.”
Bryant walked past his parked car and headed for the street. He walked with a purpose, almost a strut to his step. Ever since the accident, he’d lost any sense of apprehension when it came to confrontations. He strode across the slick street and waited on the center strip for a car to pass. The Expedition was still sitting there idling. Bryant glanced over his shoulder and couldn’t see Margo.
After the car passed, Bryant headed straight for the Expedition. There was no hesitation to his gait. He stood inches in front of the driver’s side window and knocked. The smoky glass windows prevented him from seeing inside the vehicle, but he knew what to expect.
The window rolled down. Even under the dim city streetlights, Bryant could tell it was the same guy he saw at St. Andrews earlier that day. The man’s face looked like it was set in cement. His eyes were slits of intensity.
“Get in,” the man said.