After what seems like a long ten minute ride, we arrive at the store and immediately make our way inside. The store isn’t huge, but it’s not tiny either. There’s about nine registers that line the front of the store and about fifteen aisles of just about anything you would need on a day-to-day basis. I grab a shopping basket from the front and begin my slow pace through each aisle; Gloria follows behind me looking around as well. We engage in casual chit-chat as we walk and pause every so often.
As we stroll down aisle 4, I begin to hear music playing from behind me. After a couple seconds I realize the music is more like … theme music?
“Is that the theme to X-Files?” I say under my breath. I turn around to see Gloria reaching for the phone on her belt. I tilt my head; stifle a laugh, and think, X-Files? Really?
Gloria shrugs and smiles at me as she gets her phone out and looks at the caller ID.
“It’s Palmer,” she says. “I need to take this. I’ll be right back. You’re good, right?”
“Yeah, yeah … go take your call,” I say as I shoo her in the other direction.
She answers her phone and disappears around the corner towards aisle 3. I slowly make my way to aisle 5.
Every time I go to the store, I always end up looking at the books they have for sale—whether I need anymore or not. Today is no different. Although it’s a small selection, I find myself lost in its contents: drama, thriller, romance, fantasy, paranormal … they have a little bit of everything. I see a book that looks interesting; I pick it from its shelf and begin to read the back cover.
Despite being half-absorbed in reading what the book is about, I notice a large, dark shadow come into view out of the corner of my eye. Without moving my head, I lift my eyes from the book and glance to the left where the figure stands … about ten feet away. Before I can think, my head turns left to get a better look at it … actually, him!
My eyes trace the profile of this large, looming figure from bottom to top. Black boots, dark pants, black coat, and … black baseball cap.
Oh my God, it can’t be him!
But deep down, I know otherwise. It’s the man-in-black I bumped into on the street and the one from the photographs.
I snap my eyes back to the book I’m holding. My heart starts beating twice as fast, and I know this because I can feel it pounding out of my chest; I can hear the accelerated pulse in my ears. Not sure of what I should do, I stand there … frozen.
Still facing the books on the shelf, the man-in-black takes a slow side-step towards me.
Seven feet away!
I want to run, but I still can’t seem to move. Not only from fear, but also from curiosity.
Then, my insides jump when finally he speaks.
“I know the police are looking for your friend.” His voice is clear, calm, and … normal. I’m not sure what I expected if he was to ever talk, but it still takes me by surprise. He doesn’t make any effort to face me.
“Um … I’m sorry … are you talking to me, sir?” I don’t know why I asked that; we’re the only two people around.
“The police are looking for your friend,” he says again. “They may seek your cooperation to bring him into custody.”
“How do you—“
“It would be in your best interest,” he continues, disregarding my interruption, “to cooperate in this matter.” As he speaks, he casually pulls a book off the shelf, inspects it, and places it back on the shelf.
“I’m not … exactly sure … what you’re talking about,” I say, surprised that I’m carrying on a conversation with him.
He turns to face me and takes a step forward.
Four feet away!
I automatically step away.
Five feet away.
That’s when I finally get a good look at him. He has an average built, not overly muscular or anything; he’s just a large man. His dark, brown eyes sit deep within their sockets. A hard jaw line and strong chin square off his face. Other than his size, he looks like an ordinary man you would come across anywhere. The only things that look out of place are the thin, black moustache on his face and the baseball cap on his head … a Tampa Bay Devil Rays baseball cap, to be exact.
I may not follow baseball on a regular basis but being raised in a house with a dad and two older brothers who are baseball fanatics, I’ve picked up on a few things over the years. Not to mention, we’re about 90 minutes from where the Cleveland Indians play so there’s still a lot of baseball talk around town.
He speaks again.
My insides jump … again.
“The police will shoot and kill John Smith if you do not cooperate. That is unacceptable,” he says flatly. “If you refuse to assist in his capture, they will kill him. We cannot have that happen. Do you understand?”
“Who are you and how do you know—” my words immediately stop as he takes another step forward.
Two feet from me!
I stand my ground, my insides trembling.
“We do not wish to see John Smith get injured by the police.” He pauses, studying me intently.
I can feel his breath linger in the air with each exhale. It’s cold like ice and dry as the wind. The foul and wretched stench lies like a heavy blanket in the air … and on me. What feels like bile catches in my throat. I swallow hard, willing it to recede back down.
“Do you understand?” he asks one more time.
I nod slowly, holding my breath.
“Very good, Sarah Hart,” he says, taking a step back. “We have an understanding then.” He turns on his heel, walks down the aisle, and vanishes around the corner.
With my muscles clenched, my heart thumping, and my ears still ringing with the sound of his voice saying my name, I stand there wondering….
How does he know … my … name?
Moments later, I hear Gloria—still talking on the phone—enter the aisle behind me. I’m still facing the other direction, not having moved an inch.
I manage to pick up part of Gloria’s conversation as she approaches me from behind: “…Athens,Ohio… got it … again? … you sure? … I’ll check it out again …”
Athens, Ohio? Why does that sound familiar?
Gloria taps me on the shoulder as she walks up. “Sarah, you okay?” she asks.
I jump slightly at her touch even though I know she’s there. I turn around and reply, “Yeah … um … yeah, everything’s fine.”
She presses her lips together, and then says, “You sure? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
I don’t know what … or who I just saw.
“No, I’m good,” I lie. “I think I’m ready to check out now.”
The ride home is quiet. Gloria keeps to herself as she drives, and I’m left with my thoughts as I stare out the passenger window. Thoughts that I wish I didn’t have continuously swirl around in my head, creating a blur of everything that has happened in the last three weeks. It feels like everything—John, the Mogs, the FBI, the battles, the fights, the news, school, Emily, Mark, my parents, and my life—has been thrown onto one large pot that’s being stirred by some evil, cackling witch. I can feel it: the pot’s boiling, and soon it will begin to boil over. What will happen then? Will my life and everything around it fall out of control? Was it ever in control in the first place?
These thoughts—and more—run loosely in my mind during the ride home. It’s not until we turn onto my street that my thoughts are diverted to something else. Something worse.
“Gloria,” I say in a low and dragged tone, “what is going on over there?”
From down the street, I can see at least three black cars and two big, black vans parked in front of my house. Men in dark blue windbreakers and coats carry bags, boxes, and silver suitcases from the van into the house. Hecht is standing at one of the cars talking to a much older gentleman. From this distance, I can’t say that I recognize him but I can tell his hair is really gray; he wears a dark gray suit; and his outward appearance just emanates importance.
“Who are those people?” I ask. “What are they doing?”
Gloria sighs. “They’re agents,” she replies. “That’s surveillance equipment they’re unloading.”
“Unloading?! For what? Why at my house?” I’m caught off-guard, not sure of what to think. I feel like a kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar. “Did you know about this?”
“I knew they were sending someone over,” she says, “but I didn’t know they were going to go all out like this.” She pulls over and stops the truck. She keeps her eyes forward and her grip tightens on the steering wheel.
“Listen Sarah,” she begins, “things could get a little intense over the next few days….”
“Intense? What do you—“ my phone vibrates in my pocket, interrupting my question.
“I need you to lay low,” she continues as if I hadn’t said anything. “Don’t talk to anyone, especially if you don’t know them.”
I look at my phone. Mark is calling.
She continues, “I have a feeling they’re going to put you in a lockdown status when you get home.”
“Wait. What? Lockdown?” I ask, holding my phone that’s still vibrating. What does Mark want right now?
“It’s actually the best thing for you right now.” Gloria turns and looks at me. “You’ll be safer at home while I’m gone.”
“Gone? Wh— where are you going?” My phone stops vibrating. I glance at it to see the call go to voicemail.
“Sarah,” she says ignoring my plea, “if there’s anywhere you need to go or anything you need to do before we get home now is the time to do it.” She looks back down the street. “I don’t think you’ll be going anywhere for a while.”
I’ve spent a lot of time with Gloria over the past couple weeks. She’s always shown a positive and happy attitude about everything. Out of everyone I’ve ever met, she has the friendliest, warmest, and most genuine smile I’ve ever seen. But right now, in this moment, she’s not smiling; she doesn’t appear too positive or happy. I’ve never seen—or imagined—her to be this serious before. That really worries me.
“Sarah….” she says, waiting, offering me time to think.
My phone starts vibrating. It’s Mark again. He wouldn’t call me unless it was really important.
“Hold on,” I tell Gloria, “let me take this real quick.”
Gloria loosens her grip on the wheel and takes out her own phone.
“Hey Mark,” I say into the phone. “What’s up?”
“Hey, you got a minute? Is it … okay to talk?”
“Yeah, sure,” I say. “I got a minute. What’s up?”
As I’m listening to what Mark is saying, I’m watching Gloria punch keys on her phone. It looks like she’s sending a text to someone.
Being able to effectively multi-task has been one of my strong points. My parents never understood it—or believed it. “How can you talk on the phone, work on the computer, AND listen to what I’m saying to you all at the same time?” they would always ask me. “I’m a teenage girl; you’d be surprised at the many things I can accomplish at one time” I would say. During this entire time, I’m hearing everything Mark is saying and watching Gloria type away.
Mark can be long-winded sometimes and this is certainly one of those times. He doesn’t go into details or specifics about anything, but he keeps saying things aren’t safe right now. He suggests I come over so he can tell me everything in person. He says it’s “extremely important” and that it can’t wait. Judging by the intense tone in his voice, whatever Mark needs to tell me must be really important. It’s not like him to sound that concerned. And that worries me too.
“Okay,” I tell Mark. “I think I can swing by…” my words hang as I turn to Gloria.
“Is it okay if we go by Mark’s house real quick?” I ask.
Gloria looks at me and nods. “That’s fine. I can drop you off.” She goes back to her phone.
I go back to Mark and say, “I can be there in a few. Okay.” We hang up.
I look up at Gloria; she finishes her message, sends it, and flips her phone closed. She looks up, straight ahead, and my eyes follow her gaze to Hecht and the gray-haired man. After a couple seconds, I see the gray-haired man reach for his phone. He looks at it, and then he turns his head to the right as if he wants to turn all the way around but he only stops halfway.
“Okay, let’s go,” Gloria says, pulling the truck into the closest driveway to turn around.
I watch, as we turn around to head to Mark’s house, the gray-haired man study his phone. Before we turn the corner, I crane my neck to keep watching: Hecht walks into the house and the gray-haired man gets in one of the cars. Before he slides in the back, I notice he glances in our direction. Being too far away, I’m not able to get a good look at his face before he disappears into the car.
“Where are you going?” I ask Gloria.
“You said that I’ll be safer at home while you’re gone,” I say, fearing her absence. For some reason, I feel safe around Gloria. “So, where are you going?” I ask again for the third time.
“I have to go out of town to check something,” she says, very straight-forward.
“Oh, okay” is all I say, nothing more. I begin to wonder what has changed that suddenly has her on high alert.
“I’ll only be gone a few days,” she offers. “You’ll be safe at the house.”
I hope so.
As we pull up in front of Mark’s house, I see him waiting impatiently on the porch.
What’s got him so antsy?
I slowly gather my things and open the door expecting Gloria to turn off the engine and follow me in. Instead, she waits with the engine still running.
“You go ahead,” she says. “Call me when you’re ready, and I’ll pick you up.”
“Okay,” I say reluctantly. I get out, close the door, and walk up to Mark. He watches Gloria as she leaves then moves his attention to me.
Just a very concerned and worried look on his face.
“I … guess this isn’t about school, huh?” I ask, trying to soften the eerie mood that has apparently set in.
“No,” he says flatly. “I wish it was, but it’s not.”
“Then, what?” I ask, oblivious to what could possibly be so bad.
Mark looks at me, right into my eyes. Not the look a boy gives a girl either, but a look a doctor gives a patient’s family members when he comes out of an operating room … with bad news. His expression is nothing short of serious.
My spine shivers.
My heart quickens.
My breathing struggles.
“It’s John,” he says. “He’s on his way back here. To Paradise.”
“What? How do you—“ the words catch in my throat, not being able to finish.
“Come on.” He turns and guides me through the door. “I’ll tell you everything inside.”