A Stitch in Time
18 months later
The sound of the door clunking shut behind her, the cool touch of the hall tiles underfoot, and the lingering aroma of last night’s curry, signalled she was home at last; another school day from hell was over.
Sarah wriggled her toes a little more on the smooth surface, and then dropped her sweaty shoes into the basket at the bottom of the stairs. Holding her aching back, she bent over, picked up the mail from the mat and flicked through the pile. Crap, crap and more crap. Never mind about the decimation of the rainforests, the two-for-one garden gnome offer at Paradise Garden Centre is much more important!
Bing-bong! She jumped as the doorbell chimed. Sarah rolled her eyes. Who the hell is this, now?
She sneaked into the living room and peeped through the blinds. It was damn near wine o’clock, and after the day she’d had, if it wasn’t Johnny Depp out there, she wasn’t interested.
Sarah could see that the caller was male, dark-haired, tall and suited. He had his back turned to her, and was tapping a clipboard on the side of his leg. Nope, not Johnny Depp, probably a time-waster, so he could bugger off.
Just as she was closing the gap in the blind, the man turned and spotted her. He smiled, raised his clipboard and waved hello with his pen.
Bugger...I’ll have to open the dammed door now!
“Hello,” she said, opening the front door slightly, “I’m sorry, but I’ve just got in. I’ve lots to do, so I haven’t got time to buy anything.”
“Well, that’s all right then, because time is my business,” he said.
Sarah noted that even though he wasn’t Johnny Depp, he wasn’t half-bad. He looked to be about thirty-five, had gorgeous sea-green eyes, a long aquiline nose and a full sensuous mouth. The mouth was curling at the edges in a slow smile.
She sighed. Never mind his smile, Sarah, he’s a time waster, get rid of him. “As I said, I am really busy, and as you have just said, time is your business. Timeshares I expect, so I really must...”
“I’m really not selling anything.” He placed the pen between a set of perfect teeth, lowered his eyes and traced his finger down the pages on his clipboard.
“Well, I don’t mean to be rude, but I must go,” Sarah said, already starting to close the door. What she needed was a big glass of red and her feet up.
He looked up from his board and smiled again. “I think you do mean to be rude, actually. Don’t worry, I just need to go over a few instructions with you. You have a huge task to complete, and we need to make sure you know exactly what’s going to happen.” He took a step towards her.
Sarah immediately slammed the door in his face. Who the bloody hell did he think he was, completely ignoring her? He was obviously a complete fruit-loop, handsome, but a fruit-loop nonetheless. A task to complete; now that was a new one.
Marching to the kitchen, she grabbed a wineglass from the cupboard and poured a big glug of red. Now, a comfy sofa and mind-numbing rubbish on the TV beckoned. Taking a mouthful of wine she walked into the living room, and nearly spat it out again. The fruit-loop was sitting casually on her sofa, grinning from ear to ear.
“Ooh, have you got a glass for me, Sarah? I could murder one.”
Managing to swallow the wine, she backed towards the door, gasping, “How the hell did you get in here, and how do you know my name?” Frantically, she tried to remember where she’d put her mobile, was it still in her school bag?
Fruit-loop held up his hands. “Hey, sorry, don’t be afraid, asking for wine was crass of me. You must be freaked out, look, I promise I’m not here to hurt you.”
Sarah inched out into the hall. Even if she could put her hand on the damned phone, she probably wouldn’t have time to dial 999. No, the best solution was to make a run for it. She set down her wineglass on the hall table and turned for the front door... only to see fruit-loop standing in front of it.
She felt the floor come up to meet her, and leaned heavily against the wall. This was impossible; he was sitting on her sofa in the living room, wasn’t he? “How the ..?”
He held up his hands again, silencing her. “I told you, time is my business,” he shrugged, “I can make it stop, go forward and back, but only by a few seconds, otherwise the dimensions get mucked up. I stopped time, walked round you, here in the hall, and then started it again. Same way I got in here too. Now, we really must get down to business. I am not here to hurt you, I repeat not here to hurt you, Sarah. My name’s John, by the way.”
John walked towards her, gesturing that she should return to the living-room. Sarah led the way on shaky legs and then sank down into her armchair. She figured that the fallout from the Neil and Karen trauma and her stressful job, had at last pushed her over the edge. Lots of her teacher friends had breakdowns...this must be her turn. Actually, now that it had happened, she felt relieved really...
“So,” John’s voice broke into her thoughts. “Sarah Yates, thirty-four, divorced,” he looked at his clipboard. “No children, history teacher at Grangeworthy High, stressed, disillusioned with the way teaching is going, though not with the subject of history, and not with most children, just the minority who eat you alive. The latest bane of your life is Danny Jakes of 9CM, who told you recently to ‘stick your detention up your fat arse!’’
John, now seated on her sofa, pulled a face of sympathy across the room, flicked over the page of notes and continued. “Err...husband ran off with best friend, they now have a child, you despise them both, especially him, because you gave him the best years of your life, and now think that your chance for kids has passed.” An even more sympathetic look found a home on John’s face. “Dear oh dear,” he placed the clipboard down and looked across at her again. “Now, I have got the right, Sarah Yates, haven’t I?”
Sarah wished that he hadn’t, but sadly he had described her life in a nutshell. Neil had indeed left with Karen about eighteen months ago now. It had been a drunken one night stand apparently; the pregnancy had come as terrible shock. They hadn’t planned to keep the child, but then time went by and Karen found it impossible to terminate. They started getting used to the idea, and Neil insisted on financial support, hence the trip to Mothercare.
Then, when Sarah had found out and everything was in the open, Neil and Karen had decided to make a go of it. So, it was Sarah’s fault really – how nice for them to have it all magically and neatly resolved like that.
It was old news, but the pain was still as fresh as a daisy on a spring morning. Hearing the facts read out like a shopping list, even though John seemed sorry for her, did not help. The pity of strangers...wasn’t that a poem, perhaps a film? She should audition for the lead role. Sarah sighed and rubbed her eyes.
“Yes...yes that’s me, unfortunately. Now, you need to disappear because I’m suddenly feeling very weary. I’ll make an appointment with my GP in the morning, but for now, I just want to sleep.”
“To get some antidepressants or something for this breakdown I’m having,” she shrugged. “I’m obviously talking to a hallucination.”
John threw back his head and laughed. “No, Sarah, I’m as real as you. It’s normal to feel shell-shocked, but you’ll get over it quite quickly, people usually do.
“So I’m not having a breakdown?”
“Not as far as I know...look, I am what’s known as a Time-Needle. It’s something you’re born into and can’t do anything about. My job is to sew together holes that have opened up in time with a stitch. If they remain open, people will die. I find stitches in time and you’re a stitch.
Sarah looked at him opened-mouthed for a few moments, and then, springing up, she wagged a finger at him. “OK, that’s it, and that’s all! I need a drink!”
She shot out. John followed her to the kitchen. He watched, frowning, as she pulled a wineglass from the cupboard and picked up the bottle, all the while muttering under her breath.
“Err...you have a glass out here in the hall already,” he said, going to the hall and returning with the glass.
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry, I forgot. How silly of me, I mean I am behaving perfectly normally aren’t I? Talking to a Time-Lord, needle, or whatever the hell you are, listening to stories of sewing holes together in time, and what was the last thing?” she said, knocking back the wine in one gulp. “Oh, yes, I’m a stitch...yup, perfectly normal!” She poured more wine and glared at him.
“Oh dear, you really need to calm down a bit, Sarah. Do you mind if I have this one?”John asked, holding up the wineglass.
Sarah shrugged and stared out of the window. This was worse than she had initially feared. Not only was she having a full-blown breakdown, she couldn’t make the damned hallucination stop. Her mind was totally out of control!
She closed her eyes and breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth, counted to three, and snapped her eyes open. No, he was still there, sipping her wine as if he was real! Her addled mind had conjured up a gorgeous guy and called him John. Johnny was apparently too obvious. God, how sad was she? Sipping her wine, she decided that the best thing to do was go with the flow. If I play along, show myself...my mind, that I’m not scared; perhaps the stress will go away...and with it, the hallucination. And anyway, what choice do I have?
“You look a bit calmer now,” John said, setting his glass on the table and drawing up a stool.
Sarah sighed and opened the fridge door. “Yes, well I think it’s sinking in a bit now. “Would you like some crackers and cheese? Wine on an empty stomach isn’t such a good idea. I was going to dial a pizza later, but I’ve gone off that idea, funny, that.”
“Yes, please if you’re sure it’s no trouble,” John said, peering round her at the contents of the fridge. “Ooh, and a bit of that cold ham and pickles if there’s some going begging.”
“Anything else, you know, while I’m here?” Sarah asked, sarcastically.
“Err...is that Sainsbury’s houmous?” John asked, licking his lips.
A few minutes later, Sarah, seated opposite at the kitchen table, watched as John made short work of his food. Biting into a cracker, Sarah pointed a piece of cheese at him and asked, “So, you’re a time traveller, do you have a wife?”
“A wife?” John looked startled. “No, but I think we need to keep our relationship platonic, Sarah. It’s not that I don’t find you attract...”
“No! It’s a book and a film,” she said, horrified that he’d thought she was coming on to him. She sighed and shook her head. Hang on? What the hell does it matter what he thinks, he’s not bloody real!
“Oh, I see,” John was saying. “I don’t keep up much with books and films.” He popped a pickled onion in his mouth. “And, I’m not a time traveller; you are...or will be, if you agree to it of course.”
“Oh, right, yeah, I’m always zipping about the universe in my trusty TARDIS, more ham, John?”
“Now you are just being facetious, Sarah. Ham...mm, just a couple of slices will be lovely, thanks.”
“Anyway,” Sarah said, with her head in the fridge, “thought you said I was a stitch in time, not a time traveller.” She forked ham onto John’s plate, a thought suddenly occurring to her. “Ha-ha, ‘a stitch in time saves nine’! Mind you, that old saying means that if you don’t attend to a problem immediately, the problem will get worse. God knows quite what you meant, John.”
John thanked her and took a sip of wine. He stared at her across the table while she crunched her crackers. “Look, Sarah, I think you’re about ready to hear what this whole thing is about.”
Sarah drained her glass and folded her arms. “Yup, I think I’m ready too, John, fire away why don’t you?”
“OK,” he leaned forward and pushed his plate to one side. “The meaning of the old saying, ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ has become corrupted over the centuries. It actually means that if a hole in time isn’t sewn up by a stitch, nine people will die. Those nine people may, or may not, be pivotal actors on the stage of history, but if they die, or are never born, the effect on the future is always negative. The stitch has to travel back through time to save them.”
Sarah swallowed a cracker and began to admire the capacity her brain had for such intriguing plots. She was even starting to enjoy it. Great looking guy, wine, interesting conversation, even if it was all in her head, it was better than watching Eastenders on her own...again.
“OK, John,” she said, rolling up a slice of ham and dipping it in the houmous. Sarah wasn’t fussed about what a hallucination thought of her table manners. “So, I’m this stitch. Why are there holes, why me, and what do I have to do?” She shoved all the ham in her mouth at once.
John raised his eyebrows slightly as he watched her stuffing her face but didn’t comment. “Why do holes appear? There are lots of theories too complicated to go into now. Why you? I have no idea, I just get the information. What you have to do, I can answer,” he took a dainty nibble of cheese and dabbed his mouth with a bit of kitchen roll. “A stitch or S.T.I.T.C.H. actually is an acronym for your task. You have to
Sarah frowned and dabbed her finger at the last few crumbs of cheese on her plate.
“Great acronym, it has just one dastardly flaw, Mr Depp.”
“Mr Depp?” John said, draining his glass.
“Yes, you said earlier that I had to close the hole to save nine, like the old saying. Well, now, you just said three important terrestrials.” Sarah sat back, folded her arms and giggled. Seems like my hallucination is having a breakdown too!
“No flaw, Sarah, you save three, and then the children that they go on to have, or sometimes, grandchildren, make up the nine,” John said smugly. “Is it OK if I pour another?” he held up his glass.
“Yes, why not? And get one for me, would you?” Sarah held her glass above her head as he walked past. She’d already had one large glass, but hey, the wine was helping her relax, and she definitely needed that. With any luck she’d pass out and wake up tomorrow, Johnless. “Oh, and I think we’d be comfier in the living room,” she called over her shoulder as she left the kitchen.
Sarah flopped onto the sofa, punched the cushions, and slotted them behind her back. She stretched and yawned loudly as John came in.
“Don’t get too comfy and go to sleep, you need to understand what’s going to happen,” he said, handing her the wine.
Sarah noticed it was a very small glass.
“OK,” he said, picking up his clipboard and sitting in the chair opposite. “Looks like the three that you are down to save are: a homesteader in the Old American West, someone caught up in the Sheffield Blitz, and,” he flicked paper. “ah, yes, a suffragette in early 20th century London.”
“Well, that confirms it then. I am having a breakdown,” Sarah sighed, yawned again, and closed her eyes.
“What does?” John frowned.
“Well, it’s a bit bloody predictable, isn’t it? I teach all those things in my job don’t I? My brain has neatly woven them into my hallucination.”
“No, Sarah, you aren’t having a breakdown. It’s partly because of what you do, that you have been chosen as a stitch. You have to know the period well, to be able to blend in.”
Opening one eye she said, “I thought you didn’t know why I had been chosen – that you ‘just got the information’?” Sarah waggled her index and middle fingers in mock quotation marks.
“Yes, that’s true, I only know little bits.” John sighed and looked at his watch. “Look, I need to know, are you going to do this or not?”
Sarah closed her eye. “Do I have a choice?”
“Yes...though you will have deaths on your conscience if you don’t.”
“Oh that’s nice then. Has anyone ever refused?”
“A few,” John said. “One had devastating consequences. There was a guy a few hundred years ago, Norman. He refused, and someone who should have been born wasn’t, and someone who shouldn’t have been born was.”
Sarah opened both eyes. “Who?”
“Hitler! God, how awful!” Sarah said, reaching for her wineglass.
“Yeah, you know that saying, ‘time waits for no man’? It was originally time waits for Norman, but unfortunately, Norman didn’t care.”
Sarah scratched her head. “But I don’t get it. If I go back to the Old American West and save somebody, their children or grandchildren will already have been born, had children of their own, grown old and may be dead by now. So how can all of that have happened if I haven’t even gone back in time yet? And what I do back in time will totally mess up the future...won’t it?
“No, Sarah,” John said, shaking his head. “You’ve just grown up watching films and reading books that assume that’s how time works. Scientists have no real clue. They say they do and provide lots of equations and write books to prove it, but unfortunately, they have it all wrong.”
“Wrong? So, how...?”
“Never mind all that now. We really don’t have the time...no pun intended,” John said smirking.
Swinging her legs to the floor Sarah leaned forward and ran her hands through her hair. This was beyond crazy now. She decided the best option was to agree to everything and then hopefully John would go. He kept glancing at his watch, so must want to be off. There you go again Sarah, he’s not real!
“OK, I’ll do it. What happens next, and who do I save first?”
“Now that’s a little tricky,” John said, looking sheepish. “We aren’t told that bit. It will happen unexpectedly and you’ll just have to cope the best you can...also, there’s no guarantee that you will pick the right person, and even if you do...no guarantee that you can save them.”
“Oh, this just gets better and sodding better.”
John ignored her. “Anyway, other stitches have told me that everything generally falls into place when they get there. So, Sarah,” he stood up and moved to the hallway. “I’ll bid you good evening, I need to check that everything is as it should be at the allotment. I have staff that lock up for me, but I always like to check everything.”
Sarah jumped up and followed him to the door. “Allotment?”
“Yes, I own a small market garden, that’s my job and I love it,” he said, grinning. “I don’t really like this time-needling stuff, but as I said, I was born to it and can’t do anything about it – awful really, so much responsibility.” John opened the door and stepped out.
Sarah shook her head. What kind of an imagination must she have?
John said goodbye and crunched a few steps along her drive. He hesitated and turned round. “Oh, and don’t mention anything about the future to anyone from the past. That would be problematic.”
“Yes, right, I can see how it would be. See you!” she called, quickly shutting the door.
Bewildered, Sarah walked round the house locking the doors and stacking plates and glasses in the dishwasher. Neil and Karen had a lot to answer for. She wondered if they would feel a tiny bit guilty when the men in white coats showed up at her front door with a nice strappy jacket. She poured a glass of water and opened her telephone/address book at the ‘D’ for doctor page, placing it by the phone. Snapping the hall light off, and the house into darkness, she trudged up the stairs to bed.
Ten minutes later, John stepped into the hallway. He flicked on a small torch and tiptoed to the bottom of the stairs. Reassured by thunderous snoring from upstairs, he carefully opened Sarah’s schoolbag and slipped an envelope into it. He extinguished the torch and then quietly let himself out of the house.
Somewhere in the depths of sleep, her mind begs:
No! Please… not this again…
The plea is ignored as the dream rolls in real-time.
Her pounding heartbeat provides the soundtrack to a special screening – old fears claiming the starring role.
Twenty-three years fall away – Alita is seven years old again.
The San Antonio heat is overpowering as the July sun terrorizes the shade into thin strips around a courtyard boundary. The smell of olives hangs heavy in the air, and an ornate fountain bubbles over marble lions.
Submerged in the fountain pool, her hand is very brown against the white of the marble. She wriggles her fingers, imagining her hand is a sea creature, and then lifts it out and up to the sun.
Opening and closing her fingers against the glare, Alita marvels at the beauty of the water droplets running like mercury along her skin.
A muffled scream turns her blood to ice.
Her eyes dart towards a partially shuttered window across the courtyard.
Did the scream come from there? Mama said on no account must she go near the big house.
She runs to the window anyway, adrenaline fuelling her steps.
The house dominates her tiny frame. It is white, cool and as huge as a snow-covered mountainside. Alita needs to see inside the shuttered room but the window is just too high.
“No, please, sir, not again!”
She is sure that the voice is her mother’s, though it has the same muffled quality as the scream.
Is Mama being hurt?
A twisted olive tree near the window provides a prickly ladder and, balanced precariously, Alita peers through the shutters.
When her eyes adjust to the dim light, she sees a large bedroom, and on the bed is a man sitting astride her mama, he is tearing at the buttons on her blouse and holding his other hand over her mouth. She is crying and trying to push him off, but he is too strong. Alita feels angry and hot. She cannot see his face as he has his back to her, but she can hear him.
“Shut up, you little whore, just remember I pay you, and a good pay check it is too.”
He has undone the blouse now and is pulling down her mama’s bra straps. He slaps her face when she bites his hand.
“You just lie still if you know what’s good for you, bitch!” says the man, raising his fist.
“Please, sir, why now, after all this time?” her mama is asking, lying still as he has ordered.
“Because I can, Liliana, because I can!” the man shouts, pulling up her skirt.
Alita is scared and confused but doesn’t care if she gets into trouble for being near the house. She pulls open the shutter and screams out.
“Leave my Mama alone!”
Twenty-three years into the future, Alita the woman echoes these words, crying out in her sleep.
The man leaps from the bed and pulls Alita the child into the room; he pinches her chin hard between his finger and thumb and turns her face upwards. It hurts so much but she won’t let him see that it does. She flails at him with small fists.
Alita the woman mirrors the action, punching air as the dawn light seeps through the curtains.
“What have we here then?” the man chuckles with cold humour.
She can’t see him clearly. He has pulled the shutter inwards, hiding himself behind it. Through the slats in the shutter, his face is alternately lined with shade and sunlight. The little she can see tells her that he is white. He smells of tobacco and liquor.
“Let her go, please! I know I shouldn’t have brought her to work but I had nobody to watch her today,” her mama cries, pulling her blouse together and hurrying over.
“My Mama usually has her but she’s ill today and...”
“Shut up, Liliana! You know I won’t allow children of workers here,” the man interrupts. “You people have too many little maggots crawling about the place, won’t be long before there’s no white folks left!”
“I’ll take her now, sir, you don’t have to pay me for today,” her mama says, grasping her hand.
The man continues to hold Alita’s chin, turning her face to the sunlight.
“Mind you, Liliana; this one’s a very pretty little maggot…blue eyes, quite unusual. In fact I’d quite like her to come and work for me in a few years, I’m sure she’d be very useful.”
“Let her go, you son of a bitch!” her mamma cries slapping his hand away. She picks Alita up and runs down a wide marble staircase out into the glare of the afternoon.
The man runs after them but stops at the top of the steps. Alita can hear him shouting as she buries her tear-stained face in her mama’s neck.
“You’re fired, Liliana…do you hear me!”
“I quit already, do you hear me!” Her mama shouts back. She sets Alita down, and together they run down a long gravel drive away from the big house.
Another shift over, Dr. Ramirez snapped off her rubber gloves and shrugged out of her white coat. She needed a shower, food and rest. Sleep deprivation cast shadows underneath her dark lashes and weariness oozed from every pore.
Ramirez rubbed her eyes, yawned and loosed her raven hair from a tortoiseshell hairclip. From her locker she took black jeans, a red blouse and trainers. Pulling on the jeans she caught sight of herself in the mirror. Damn, I look more like fifty than thirty this evening! She wondered how the older staff coped with the workload if she felt like this. Never mind, another half hour and she’d be tucked up in bed.
The changing room door flew open as she tied up her trainers. Senior nurse Caldwell, forty, flustered, and pink stepped in.
“Oh, thank goodness I caught you, Dr. Ramirez, sorry, but we need you for a while longer. Dr. Gregory’s been called away to an emergency and we need you to assess an assault victim just come in.”
“What?” Ramirez said, feeling her stomach thump to basement level. “Is there no one else?”
Caldwell stuck out her chin. “I wouldn’t ask you if there was. The victim’s a fifteen year old girl; she’s in pretty bad shape.”
The girl looked more like ten than fifteen as she lay lifeless motionless on the gurney. She was Hispanic, short, slight of build, her dark hair hanging in a limp braid. Her breath rasped on the intake and rattled on the out. A tear, slipping from the corner of her eye, traced a bloody path through a livid wound swelling on the left side of her face.
The other eye was prizefighter blue and sealed shut, her top lip matched her face.
Dr. Ramirez took a deep breath and assessed her quickly. The girl moaned as the doctor's fingers probed, though she took the utmost care to be gentle. As well as obvious bruising and a sprained wrist she suspected a fractured rib.
“What’s the story?” Ramirez asked the officer who’d accompanied the paramedics that brought her in.
“Not sure, Doc. We got an anonymous call to say that someone just saw a girl collapse on the sidewalk. No ID, she understands English, but she won’t tell us her name.”
Ramirez leaned close to the girl. “What’s your name, honey?”
Another tear escaped but she said nothing.
Ramirez tried again ¿Cómo te llamas cielo?
The girl swallowed and looked into her eyes. “Marissa,” she whispered. Even this small action ripped open the split in her top lip, blood trickled into her mouth.
“Marissa? What a pretty name. Just lie still now.”
An hour later, Dr. Ramirez sank into her comfy office chair by the window. She was utterly exhausted now. She thought about the girl she’d just attended, and closed her eyes against the sadness welling behind them. Her eyes had seen too many Hispanic children and teenagers needing her attention over the years. All had carried with them silent tales of poverty, hopelessness and despair. This most recent one, Marissa, had been raped as well as beaten.
She walked over to the water cooler and filled a plastic cup. Through her tenth-floor window the purple shades of evening were creeping over the city. Houston could be really beautiful at this time of day. The retiring Texan sun painted subtle hues of orange, yellow and red along the tips and edges of stone and aluminum.
Sand coloured skyscrapers, reflected in the stark glass of the Wells Fargo building, stretched their fun house images to the sky.
Ramirez sipped her water and even though she was almost asleep, marvelled at the scene. This was the Houston skyline. Monoliths to the modern, sprinkled with the dust of the past swept in from the plains.
Something about the soft light playing over the white walls of a smaller building to her left suddenly triggered unwelcome images. The intoxicating smell of olives filled her senses, and images of a woman long ago in a big house, frightened, ashamed and dominated, blocked out the skyline.
The memories punched hard in the gut, and Ramirez stepped back under the impact. Images of a young child, small, terrified and powerless, her face cruelly pinched between the finger and thumb of a strong hand, forced their way into her mind. Then insidiously, the vile source of these terrifying images passed briefly in front of Ramirez’ eyes too – he went by the name of Robson Cutter.
She blinked rapidly, trying to force the unwelcome images from her head, and turned to the door; she needed to get out, she needed to go home.
As she took a step forward, the floor seemed to rise under her feet. Her face drained of colour and she swayed from side to side. Quickly, she grabbed the desk to stop herself from falling.
Ramirez leaned on the desk, closed her eyes and tried to take slow calming breaths. Her whole body shook as waves of nausea crashed against her stomach walls. She reasoned the cause was the eighteen-hour stint, and the emotion involved with the poor girl she’d attended. Whatever it was, it wasn’t going away anytime soon.
In a cold sweat, her stomach churning painfully, she grabbed her bag and ran out into the corridor. Dashing for the locker room, she made it to the cubicle where she dropped to her knees and vomited. As she did, the face of Robson Cutter grinned in her head.
Shaking from head to toe, she flushed the toilet and then ran water into a basin. The water felt good as she splashed her face but it couldn’t wash away the memory of that name.
When she thought of Cutter she saw hatred and misery. In her mind her mother’s face merged with Marissa’s – just another poor vulnerable young woman.
She patted her face dry with a paper towel and regarded her haunted expression in the mirror. Dr. Alita Ramirez gritted her teeth and vowed that one day; somehow, she’d avenge her mother and wipe that grin permanently off Cutter’s face.
* * *
Leave my mama alone!...I quit already!... running...running...
Alita woke with a start. Bathed in sweat, the noise of crunching gravel was still in her ears. Her pillow was wet with either sweat or tears; she released it slowly from a vice like grip. Alita’s heartbeat began to assume its regular rhythm as she waited for the dream to let go of her.
This nightmare was relentless. When she was a kid she must have dreamt it at least once a month, maybe more. Thankfully it started to recur less, and then eventually left her in peace.
Now it was back nearly every time she closed her eyes, because three weeks ago she’d discovered something that she’d known in her heart for years. The nightmare was real.
After showering and dressing for the day, Alita tried to shake the last little tendrils of sleep from her head. The coffee whispered through the filter and hissed into the pot. Caffeine immersion normally worked. Thankfully, the nausea hadn’t returned after she’d left the hospital and she’d been out cold as soon as her head touched the pillow. Out cold until the dream made its appearance yet again, of course.
Alita tossed unread newspapers, novels and magazines onto the floor and made space on the sofa. Time for relaxation was eaten alive by her punishing work schedule in paediatrics. Thank goodness she had today off. Sunday better had be a day of rest.
She put her feet up and critically appraised her downtown apartment. White walls, red sofa, stripped floorboards, minimalistic elegance, easy to manage...boring. Alita sighed, picked up a magazine and tried to focus. The dream was fading, but the emotions and fears of that day were suddenly back at her side like an anxious puppy. After tending to the rape victim yesterday she wasn’t surprised.
Closing her eyes and sipping her coffee she released the events of that day twenty-three years ago. Over the last few weeks she’d imagined that if she confronted it again in the light of day it would stop haunting her nights. That theory was shot.
She put down her coffee and absently picked at her nails. No matter what her mama had drummed into her when she was seven, Alita had always struggled to squash the images. After they had run home from the big house, her mama had taken her face firmly in her hands, looked into her eyes.
“Alita, I’m sorry you had to see that today, but it’s over now and you must never speak of it again to anyone. You mustn’t even think about it, Alita, do you hear me?”
“No buts, never speak of it or think of it, just wipe it from your mind. It never happened, do you understand!?”
Her mother’s eyes had been pleading, angry and ashamed all at the same time. Alita never mentioned it again until the dreams started. She had meant to keep her promise, but one night she awoke from the nightmare screaming. Her papa had come running to her room, and before she could help herself she’d told him that she’d dreamt a bad man was trying to hurt mama, and he wanted to hurt her too. Mama came in then, she remembered, and hugged her tight, wiping away the tears.
“Hey, I’m OK; nobody is hurting me or you. Just a bad dream is all. My, what an imagination you must have, my little one,” her mother had said, waving her husband back to bed with a smile.
As she was about to close the door Alita said in a small voice, “It wasn’t a dream, Mama; it was that bad man…you know the one who…”
“No, Alita, it was your imagination running around your head, that’s all. That’s what dreams are. The things you dreamt never happened. Now go back to sleep, no more nonsense.”
Her tone had put an end to the matter. Alita never spoke of it again, but the dreams refused to be silenced.
Alita suddenly jumped up. Damn, it was no use going over it all again now! She stretched and flopped over from the waist like a marionette cut from its strings. She shook out her arms and fingers, enjoying the rush of energy, and then stood upright again. Perhaps she’d go for a walk to clear her head.
Taking her cup into the kitchen, she looked out of the window at the rain clouds gathering to fight the high pressure the city had enjoyed for the past week. Deciding that a walk may not be such a great idea, Alita thought she’d call her brother instead.
She picked up the phone then quickly slammed it down again as if it had become a loathsome creature ready to bite off her hand.
Alita stepped away from it and leaned her head against the cool metal of the fridge as painful memories crowded her thoughts. It was from this phone three weeks ago that she had been called home to San Antonio, called home to hear terrible news about her papa, called home where a revelation by her mama left her at a point where her life as she knew it had crumbled about her ears.
Alita’s breath caught in her throat and she felt a rush of panic sweep across her. She stretched her hand to the phone again and watched as her fingers trembled like aspen leaves in a breeze. She tucked her hands under her armpits and went back to the sofa, trying to employ the calming techniques she’d learned. ‘Deep breaths’ she muttered, leaning back on the cushions. The torrent of panic reduced to an undercurrent after a few seconds and she felt more relaxed.
Closing her eyes however, she was immediately catapulted back to the day of the phone call.
“Mama? I was just thinking about you all, what a happy coincidence!”
Her mother was in no mood for small talk.
“It’s Papa, he’s in hospital…he’s not well at all, Alita.”
Alita could tell she was struggling to remain composed.
“The doctors tell me if he can’t find a kidney donor soon... he may not come out,” she finished, strangling a sob.
“What? Has the medication failed?” Alita asked, realising the implications for a man with only one damaged kidney.
“Yes...he is very sick. I didn’t tell you before – you over there and busy an all.”
Guilt tripping again, Alita thought, but bit back a retort and said, “Mama try not to worry, I’m on the next plane.”
“OK, I have to go now; the doctor wants to speak with me…”
“Yes of course… and, Mama, I love…”
Alita’s mother had already hung up.
Alita now opened her eyes and felt guilt struggling to surface again. Kneeling by the sofa she began to sort the magazines, newspapers and other bits and pieces into some semblance of order. Order appealed to her logical mind. Order was a tool employed to dispel the jumble of emotions now thrashing around her head.
Guilt would have its way however, because as she sorted, she remembered that before that phone call she had been thinking about how grateful she was that she’d moved on – moved away. She had felt smug. Her life was full of new things, people, and opportunities. Mama, Papa and her younger brother, Miguel, seemed set in their ways – stuck in the past. Small town mentalities in big cities only get sidelined or buried under glass-fronted horizons.
Alita suspected they had become burdened by tradition and fatalism; ‘whatever will be, will be’ was just a crock. She knew hard work and determination could bring you almost anything. She wanted excitement, unpredictability, freedom and real meaning to life. The ties of family and tradition gave her a skin rash.
Then the phone had rang out in her sterile, smart, and soulless apartment, and the news about her papa had slapped her painfully back to the past.
Racing around, packing a bag and making arrangements for shift cover, all she had been able to think about was her papa. She should have been there with the family.
Quickly kneeling and crossing herself, she had prayed that Papa would be given back to them. The doctors’ logic and cool appraisal of difficult situations had abandoned her. She had grabbed her coat, bag, and ties of family and tradition, and sped down the stairs into the waiting taxi.
Severe Weather Warning
The screen went black, then light slowly permeated as if dawn was breaking. An Arizona state sign became visible, and a vast stretch of flat desert floor dotted with huge Cacti swept into view, as the sun rose higher in the sky.
A brown light-aircraft stood at the ready, waiting for passengers like a giant Mosquito. Its whining propeller cut the still desert air.
Zac's large pink face loomed into focus. Surrounding him were members of the press, and at least three TV crews. A crowd of around two-hundred in total huddled in clumps along the runway. Jacob thought he could make out Chris and Paul in the crowd, though their images were blurred.
The plane took off. Later the expectant crowds waited; faces upturned to witness the gathering rain clouds. The sky darkened, thunder rumbled - it began to rain. Huge fat drops of water hurled themselves from the sky onto the small group assembled below. Shrieks of excitement and fervent applause were offered up to the heavens.
Moments later, the shrieks of excitement were replaced by shrieks of terror, as a storm the like of which no one had ever seen, rampaged across the State of Arizona.
Zac’s insane experiment had unwittingly unleashed a force equal to that of a small nuclear explosion. The resulting effect of this however, was infinitely worse. Nuclear explosions damage certain areas, and eventually after a number of years, the effects can be managed.
This storm on the other hand would affect the entire world - it could never be managed.
Great mushroom-clouds sucked up whole reservoirs and lakes in Arizona, and dumped them on Idaho and Wyoming. Tornados collected huge mounds of sand in deserts, and deposited them on cities. Men, women, children and animals drowned everywhere, as the torrential rain remorselessly ravaged the earth.
Within hours, whole cities were under water.
For more than five minutes they watched the pod hunt for breakfast. Although it was hard to tell exactly how many dolphins were there, they estimated about five or six. Although they were no longer so near to the boat, they were in plain sight. Grace had never felt so happy and exhilarated watching those magnificent creatures at such close quarters.
“There goes Nature’s Grace in action, right before your eyes, child, what do you make of them?” Grace didn’t have the words to express her feelings properly, she just said
“I suppose they make me feel really happy…joyful like.”
“I couldn’t have put it better myself. Definitely joyful like,” Flora nodded, looking out to where the dolphins had last surfaced.
Gradually they moved further away until they were no longer to be seen. Grace felt glad to have seen them but sad that they had gone.
“I wish they had stayed just a bit longer, gran.” Flora nodded in agreement, and then surprised Grace by suggesting they call them back.
“Call them back, how could we do that?”
“Well, I’m not sure. You know when you told me how you sent out good thoughts to the little lamb that was ailing?” Grace nodded expectantly. “Well, we could both send out thoughts to the dolphins asking them to come back to us and play a while longer.”
Grace looked doubtful, “Do you think it would work?”
“I have absolutely no idea, but we could give it a try for nothing, what do you think?”
Shifting her position slightly, and brushing her unruly hair from her eyes, Grace looked out to sea, concentrating for all she was worth.
Flora looked down at her granddaughter’s forceful expression and wanted to chuckle, she looked exactly like the grumpy gnome she had in her garden. Instead, she too looked out to sea. Five minutes went by, then ten, and then all of sudden Grace pointed to the right of the boat. In the near distance, the dolphins had returned. They seemed to be hunting in a procession now, rather than one here and one there; they also were coming directly towards them.
“Gran, they’re coming straight for us,” whispered Grace.
“Yes… they do seem to be,” replied Flora in awe as never before in all her dolphin watching had this happened. Grace gasped and grabbed the side of the boat as one of the submerged creatures gently bumped up against them. She was not afraid though, as it was clear they were at play.
Leaning over the sides of the boat, Flora on the left, Grace on the right to keep balance, they were afforded fantastic views as the dolphins swam underneath their vessel, then emerged at the other side, so close that their smiling faces could be seen as they turned near the surface.
The highlight of the whole experience was to follow. One of the smaller dolphins sped under the boat from Flora’s side and shot clean out of the water into the air right in front of Grace’s eyes. “Wow!” she yelled as the dolphin re-entered with a splash, showering Grace with salt water. After this finale the whole group turned and quickly disappeared into the distance.
Grace was between laughter and tears for a few seconds. Flora hugged her. “Well, Grace, I’ve never seen anything like that. It could have been coincidence that the creatures returned back this way, but we both know it wasn’t don’t we?”
“Yes, gran, it was ‘natures way’ alright, I could just feel it somehow.”
“Yes, me too. One day I think you are going to do a lot of good with it, just like I have done all these years,” quietly to herself she added, “In fact I’m sure of it.”