They were on the west side of Phoenix now, forty miles from Chandler and far enough to allow Bryant time to think. The night took hold as he sat on a bench at a bus stop with Margo next to him. They’d already taken a couple of buses to get there, but Bryant was taking no chances. They were staying completely off the grid. He wasn’t going to allow Turkle even the slightest opportunity to track them.
Margo chewed on her fingernails while Bryant scrutinized the other side of the busy intersection. A man wearing a bright-green Nike T-shirt walked into a supermarket with a large duffle bag over his left shoulder.
“There he is,” Bryant said quietly.
“How do you know?”
“Come with me.”
They waited for the light to change and crossed the street. Bryant tried to appear casual but his peripheral vision was dancing around the perimeter searching for anything suspicious. Once in the parking lot, the same man with the green T-shirt left the supermarket without the duffle bag. He maintained a steady pace to his car, then drove away.
Bryant made sure Margo was by his side at all times. They entered the produce section and found the duffle bag just below the rack of cucumbers. Bryant hoisted the bag over his shoulder and made a giant semicircle around the organic fruit counter. As he headed down one of the aisles, he turned to Margo and said, “You want something to snack on?”
“No, thank you.”
Bryant picked up a six-pack of bottled water and a container of Honey Roasted Peanuts. “Protein,” he murdered, more to himself than Margo.
They checked out and started down the sidewalk away from the busy intersection toward a giant neon motel sign a couple of hundred yards down the street. As they disappeared into the shadows, it offered Bryant a strange sense of comfort. The anonymity soothing him like a warm bath.
They walked under the blinking “Vacancy” sign and entered the small office in the corner of the complex. A young man with fuzz growing under his chin and a tired face stood behind the counter and said nothing as they approached.
“We’d like a room please,” Bryant said.
“Sure,” the guy glanced at Margo, then back to Bryant.
“He’s my father,” Margo snapped.
The guy shrugged. “I didn’t say anything.”
“You didn’t have to,” Margo said, crossing her arms.
“I need one with two beds,” Bryant said, glad the guy didn’t appear to know who they were.
Once Bryant paid, the guy handed him the key to the room and went back to staring as they left the office and found the room just three doors down.
Bryant opened the door and was hit with the odor of mothballs and cleaning fluid. He handed Margo the duffle bag and pointed to the bathroom. “Go ahead and get changed.”
“How come I feel like a criminal?” Margo said.
“Because you’re being treated like one,” Bryant said. “Plus I’m behaving a little overly cautious.” He nodded toward the bathroom. “Go.” A command.
Margo seemed to like his demeanor. He knew she would. She desperately needed a father figure in her life, someone who’d boss her around and give her the comfort of boundaries.
While she was in the bathroom, he turned on his cell phone and dialed the Chandler Police Department’s main number. When the dispatcher answered, he spoke quickly.
“I need to leave a message for Detective Meltzer,” Bryant said.
The woman said, “I’ll put you through to his extension.”
“No!” Bryant barked. “Just leave him a message and put it on his desk, please. Do not attempt to call him, email him, text him, or any other form of contact.”
There was a pause while the woman seemed to assess his request. “What is your message?”
“Super Eight Motel on Eighty-Third Avenue. Room twelve,” Bryant said.
“And who should I say is leaving the message,” the woman asked in a snippy tone.
“He’ll know,” Bryant said. “Please, this is extremely important. Someone’s life may be at stake.”
“Who’s life?”The woman seemed to be losing her patience.
“Yours,” Bryant said, then pushed the end button. He turned off the phone, then walked over to the thick curtains covering the window. He moved the curtains aside and peeked outside.
The bathroom door opened and Margo came out in running shorts and a T-shirt. She sat down on the far bed and said, “Does he frighten you?”
Bryant let the curtains drop closed and sat on the bed across from her. “He doesn’t frighten me, no. Not for the reason you might think. I’m more concerned about you and what he wants with you.”
Margo offered a small smile. “What happens when he finds us?”
Margo’s eyes darted around the room, finally landing on Bryant.
“He’s not from this planet.”
Bryant nodded, while Margo seemed to be examining his expression.
“What do you think about what I just said?”
Bryant had to be careful. He needed Margo to trust him, yet he couldn’t afford to patronize her. “I think you’ve been under severe stress and have come to some extravagant conclusions caused by the trauma you’ve incurred.”
Margo grinned and shook her head. “That’s the first time you talked to me like you were my doctor.”
It startled Bryant how quickly he’d gone into psychoanalyst mode. “You’re right.”
“So why don’t you spare me the doctor talk and tell me what you really think?”
Bryant looked down at the worn carpet between his legs. “I think your brain is functioning on a higher level than I or any scientist on the planet can quantify. You think Agent Turkle is from another planet because he behaves erratically. You can’t compute a rational explanation so your brain devises an alternative solution. It’s operating as efficiently as any brain has ever operated. I can’t understand infinity, yet somehow I’ll bet you could grasp that concept very easily.” He looked up at her. “Right?”
Margo pursed her lips and thought about what he’d said. After a moment she nodded her head.
“So who am I to judge your opinion of Agent Turkle?” Bryant said. “I’m not even in the same solar system as your mind.”
“So then, I could be right about Agent Turkle?” she asked while scrutinizing his expression. Or was she reading his thoughts?
Bryant considered the question carefully. “Yes,” he agreed. “You could be right.”
There was a prolonged silence between them while some raindrops began to ping on the window. Bryant got up and moved the curtains aside and saw the rain coming down in the parking lot.
“Dr. Bryant, do you still believe these voices I’m hearing are auditory hallucinations?”
Bryant turned back to Margo who was sitting there with her legs crossed, her hands on her lap. He cocked his head. “You don’t own a cell phone, do you?”
Margo shrugged. “Who would I call?”
The comment dropped down like a bomb from a plane. Part of a being a good psychiatrist is similar to that of a trial attorney. You try not to ask questions which you’re not already prepared to use in a therapeutic manner. Yet there he was, watching this poor girl drowning in her own self-pity and all he could do was frown in despair.
Bryant returned to the bed and sat down across from her. He knew enough to stay quiet and let her purge the pain at her own pace.
Margo’s fingers tugged the end of her shorts as if she were trying to stretch them out.
The stillness lingered.
Finally Margo said, “Everyone I know is either dead,” her eyes came up to meet his, “or about to be.”
The wind outside gained in strength. The window rattled as raindrops assaulted the glass structure.
Bryant tried to fake a small grin. “I’m not on the verge of death. In fact I am quite healthy.”
“No you’re not. You’re even sicker than I am.” She looked around the shabby motel room as if that was enough evidence to prove her point.
“Look, I may not be one hundred percent, but I’m capable of functioning. I just needed some time to think. That FBI agent was breathing down our necks every waking moment. There’s got to be an explanation for his behavior and I’m going to find it.”
“But what if I’m right and he’s from another planet? What then?”
“Then . . .” Bryant ran a hand through his hair. “Then, I’ll send him back to where he came from.”
Margo began to grin. It spread to her eyes, then her entire face burst into a giant laugh. It was contagious because even Bryant had to join in. Soon both of them were laughing hysterically at the concept of Bryant ridding the planet of an alien invasion all by himself. The two of them finally finding some common ground.
Their laughter subsided at the very moment a thundercloud rumbled in the distance. Bryant looked at Margo with a question in his eyes.
“They’re here,” she said.
Bryant considered all the possibilities. He wanted to believe this was all an alien invasion of some sort and that Turkle was part of the invasion. It would almost be a relief. It would explain so many aspects of the past few days. But Bryant was a man of science and that’s where he was hanging his hat. That’s how he could understand Margo’s abilities and that’s how he could explain the storm system. Science.
“You see, Margo, if these aliens are really here to destroy the planet or even you or me, why haven’t they done it already? What are they waiting for?”
Margo seemed to ponder the question, her eyes looking up at the ceiling as if conjuring up thoughts from the ether. “There are certain rules they need to abide by. These rules seem to prevent them from doing direct harm to either of us. I believe they need someone else to do the dirty work.”
Bryant understood the rules were probably created by her brain to compartmentalize her trauma. Put certain irrational behavior into rational categories. Placing rules to a completely fabricated event.
Margo opened the nightstand next to her bed and pulled out the Gideon’s Bible. She lay back on her pillow and began reading.
“You need some more light over there?” Bryant asked.
“You find comfort in reading the Bible?”
Bryant hesitated. “Um . . .”
“Please don’t tell me you’ve lost your entire faith in such a short time?”
“I’m not sure it was ever strong enough to begin with.”
“I think Father Joe would disagree with that statement.”
“Father Joe is a single-minded individual.”
“True. But that doesn’t help your argument.”
Another rumble of thunder outside, this time a little closer.
“Rules, huh?” Bryant finally said.
“Yes,” Margo said, flipping a page in her Bible. “Rules.”