Hey everybody! It's been longer than usual since my last update, and I'm sorry for the wait. It's been a busy week with the holiday weekend and everything (for you who aren't in the U.S. today is Independence Day, one of our biggest national holidays). But enough with the excuses, and on with the show!
CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE: MICHIGAN
The sound of stampeding little feet thumped down the hallway as the six-year-old girl ran into her parents’ bedroom, her blonde hair trailing behind her. With a nimble leap, Anna pounced on our bed, waking us both up. She was already dressed for school, but we were still sawing logs. There’s nothing like the energy of a six-year-old first thing in the morning. I could feel her movement as she crawled across the blanket until she was leaning over us, bouncing on the mattress to force us to get out of bed.
“Wake up, wake up, wake up!”
“Ugh,” I mumbled, rolling over. “Morning, sweetheart.”
“Wake up, Daddy!”
Anna pulled the blanket off Gary, engulfing him in a rush of cold air. He curled into a ball and shuddered.
“Hmm?” He blinked and rubbed his eyes. “What is it, Anna?”
“It’s morning!” Anna announced. “And you guys are big sleepyheads!”
“We still had ten minutes,” said Gary sleepily, looking at the clock. He grabbed Anna and gave her a big hug. “Daddy needs his beauty sleep.”
I pulled the blanket off me and slowly climbed out of bed, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. Stretching and yawning, I made my way out of the bedroom into the hall.
“You’re getting up, Krystal?” Gary asked.
“Yup,” I said, smiling weakly.
“Heh, I’m staying here for a few minutes,” said Gary, collapsing back into bed, pulling the blanket over him. “I’ll wait for the alarm to go off.”
Anna hopped off the bed and followed me into the hall.
“I’m all ready for school, Mommy!” she beamed. Her blonde hair was brushed neatly as her beautiful blue eyes looked happily up at me. I smiled and picked her up, giving her a kiss on the cheek.
“You’re such a big girl,” I told her, setting her back down. “You wanna go get some cereal while I get ready?”
I watched my daughter take off excitedly down the hall to the kitchen. She meant everything to me, which was very ironic considering my past views on being a parent. Years ago, before she was born, I never wanted children of my own. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be a good parent. Taking care of a child was a very big responsibility that I didn’t want to deal with. Gary eventually talked me into having at least one after we had gotten married. I blame him for giving me the best blessing of my life.
The rug in front of the bathroom sink was soft and warm as I stood on it. By instinct, I opened the medicine cabinet, only to realize there was nothing I needed to get from it. I had been prescribed to several different medications to help with my strange mental illnesses when I was younger. Miraculously, though, most of my symptoms had faded and disappeared throughout high school and after graduation, almost overnight seemingly, so I no longer relied on medication. Still, I would sometimes open the medicine cabinet to reach for the pills I had needed to take every morning. Old habits die hard, I guess.
I closed the medicine cabinet and stared at myself in the mirror. My face was completely blemish-free, except for a scar just above my right eyebrow. I looked at the other scar on the palm of my left hand and sighed, remembering the memories restored to me by Night Stallion over ten years ago.
When I was done with my shower, I found Gary waiting outside the bathroom door.
“It’s about time,” he chuckled. I smiled softly as he kissed me.
Anna was sitting at the kitchen table when I walked in, still eating her cereal. I glanced at the clock, noticing it was only a little after ten in the morning. Anna didn’t start her afternoon kindergarten class for a couple hours, so I had time for breakfast.
Rummaging through the fridge, I decided to make an omelet. I only cracked five eggs into the skillet, thinking I wouldn’t eat much that morning. As the eggs cooked, I threw in some cheese, sliced ham, onions, bell peppers, leftover bacon, diced tomatoes, a little spinach, some jalapenos, and diced bologna.
When I was a senior in high school, I had taken a cooking class to improve my skills in the kitchen. Ever since then, I loved to cook and always made whatever I possibly could. Gary said he was lucky for marrying a great cook like me, and since I loved to eat and never gained an ounce of weight, I cooked all the time. As an added bonus, Gary was a lead program developer at a breakthrough software company and made a lot of money, so there was never much of a limit to how much I could spend on food.
“Something smells good,” I heard Gary say as he came into the kitchen. I was finishing my omelet as he put some bread in the toaster. “I’m only going to have toast for breakfast. Today is our boss’s birthday, so we’re gonna have a lot of stuff to eat at lunch. They’re having some restaurant cater for us.”
“Sounds good,” I said, thinking about all the wonderful food they’d probably have. “Can you bring me something back?”
“I’ll see what I can get my hands on,” he replied, buttoning his shirt.
“Mommy,” said Anna from the kitchen table, “I’m done with my cereal.”
“Okay, sweetie,” I said. “Put your dishes in the sink.”
After breakfast, I quickly cleaned up as Gary started to leave for work. I followed him to the door, took his jacket off the coat rack, and handed it to him.
“Here’s your jacket,” I said sweetly.
“Thanks. I’ll see ya later tonight,” he said before kissing me. When he opened the door, the chilly autumn air swirled past me before he closed it. I shuddered, thinking to myself that winter was getting closer. Gary had talked me into moving back to Michigan to start our family, and I had forgotten just how cold the winters could get.
I went into the living room where Anna was watching TV. She was sitting on the couch, unaware that I was standing in the doorway, looking at her. Everyone had said that Anna looked almost just like me, and it was true. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, but there was something still strangely eerie about having a daughter that looked so much like me. Whenever I looked at her, it was almost like looking into a mirror.
I went into the studio where my easel was. My painting was resting on it, beckoning me to work on it more. There was still some time left before I had to take Anna to school, so I sat down in front of my painting and got everything set up.
It was my second year of being in a college art class. I had always loved drawing, but I had only recently taken up painting, and I found a lot of interest in it. My classes had taught me a lot of new techniques to greatly improve my art, and I was expanding on my ideas more and more over time.
The painting I was working on was one of my best works. I was doing a picture of my daughter. Something had given me the inspiration of doing a picture of her as an angel, perhaps because she was like an angel sent for Gary and I … an angel who looked just like me. Nearly a year in the making, it was almost done. Her white, feathery wings fanned out gently behind her.
I had spent an unusual length of time working on this particular painting. Something about it made me want to take extra care with it, so I didn’t fret at all about taking too long to complete it. Looking at the picture, I figured it would be time to paint the halo next. I dipped my brush into the violet paint.
Wait, that wasn’t right. Halos were golden, not violet. I cleaned the blue paint off the brush, wondering why I had accidentally dipped my brush into the wrong color. I would just have to be more careful.
Violet again. Feeling a little confused, I cleaned the brush off once more. I couldn’t remember ever seeing an angel depicted with a violet halo before. Paying close attention to what I was doing, my brush finally made its way to the yellow paint, smeared it with a touch of orange, and I continued working on my picture.
In just a few minutes, I became completely absorbed into my painting. Time always seemed to go so fast whenever I worked on a project. Before long, I had to take Anna to school. I finished up what I was working on, put my supplies away, and then went into the living room to get Anna. She was still watching cartoons.
“Anna,” I said, “it’s time to go to school.”
“Okay!” she replied enthusiastically, jumping up and turning off the TV.
Once outside, my daughter hopped into the front passenger seat of the car, and I helped her get adjusted on her booster seat and buckled her in. A small breeze gave me chills, swallowing the car with a whirlwind of colorful leaves.
After about ten minutes on the road, we arrived at the elementary school. Anna’s school was pretty big, about as big as my old elementary school. Buses were unloading all the kids as other parents were dropping their kids off. I pulled up to the sidewalk and stopped the car.
“I’ll see you later, baby,” I said as Anna unbuckled herself.
“Okay, Mommy!” She leaned over and gave me a big hug and a kiss, then opened the door and hopped out. I watched her as she walked about halfway down the sidewalk, turned around, and waved. Waving back and smiling, I drove away, leaving Anna to do her kindergarten things.
Before going back home, I went into the downtown area to a coffee shop called Parker’s Internet Café. Gary and I first went there shortly after moving to the area. He had never been to Michigan before, and I hadn’t been familiar with that particular area, so we were having a look around town. That was when we came across Parker’s Internet Café.
I was greeted by the smell of fresh coffee and doughnuts when I opened the door, and the aroma of various bean roasts blended tantalizingly with the sweetness of pastries. The inside was very inviting and had a warm, comfortable atmosphere. A few people were inside, reading newspapers, drinking coffee, and using the free wireless internet on their laptops and tablets. During the café’s early days, being an internet café was a revolutionary and practical concept. With the advancement of free wireless internet in most public places, Parker’s Internet Café continued to grow in popularity because of its other great amenities, such as a wide variety of coffee options, amazing homemade food, and very friendly workers.
“Hi, Krystal!” Nicole, the energetic girl who worked there, called out to me. By coincidence, I would usually come in during her shift. After a while, we had become good friends.
“Hi, Nicole,” I said, smiling. “How are you?”
“Oh, I’m good,” Nicole replied, “just the same old stuff, ya know? Do you want any coffee?”
Nicole filled up a large cup with my favorite coffee and handed it to me across the counter. She often let me have stuff for free. I grabbed a bunch of creamers and sugar, which I loaded the coffee with. Black coffee was too bitter for me, so I always had to put a bunch of stuff into it. My doctor used to urge me not to drink too much caffeine because of my insomnia, but now that I had gotten over it, I’d been making up for all the years of not being able to drink coffee. In fact, my insomnia was partially intentional because of the horrible nightmares I used to have. Luckily, they all went away over time.
There were some seats by the counter, so I took my coat off and sat down in one to talk to Nicole. She took a panini with some pita chips to a customer sitting on the other side of the restaurant before coming back.
“So, okay,” she said to me, her voice full of energy as usual, “I was with Kyle last night at the movies.”
“A date?” I asked.
“Well, not really,” she said. “I mean, I know he likes me, but I barely know him! So, anyway, he was, like, sitting next to me, then he put his arm around me. And I was, like, thinking, ‘Okay, he’s getting a little close,’ but I didn’t say anything because I, like, thought, ‘Whatever, only for a little bit,’ but he kept his arm there for the rest of the whole movie!”
“What happened?” I asked, taking a big gulp of coffee. It was still a little hot and burned on the way down. Maybe it needed more sugar, too.
“Nothing happened, really,” said Nicole. “I just let him do it. I mean, I guess I kinda liked it, ya know?”
I smiled at her, and her face got really serious.
“Don’t take it the wrong way!” she replied defensively. “I mean, he’s a really nice guy, and kinda cute, but, like, yeah … I don’t know.”
“I think it’s nice,” I said. “You could use a good boyfriend.”
Nicole leaned on the counter and sighed.
“I know,” she said quietly. “Twenty-three and never had a good boyfriend ….”
“I thought you said you never had a boyfriend at all,” I said, feeling a little confused.
“Oh, Krystal, don’t rub it in!” she replied hastily. “You’ve got a good husband and a daughter, and I’m just, like, here at this coffee shop. But I’ve got my whole life ahead of me, right? I don’t want to, like, worry about stupid stuff and get old too fast! Really, I don’t need a guy in my life. Really.”
I smiled as a customer came up to the counter. As Nicole greeted her, I sipped my coffee, thinking about what she had said. Live life to the fullest because you never know what’s coming tomorrow. That’s what she would always tell me.
“Alrighty, I’ll bring that right up for you!” said Nicole enthusiastically to the customer after ringing up the order.
“Thank you very much,” the girl replied. She had a strong British accent and the sweetest smile anyone could ask for.
Nicole filled a cup with coffee and handed it to the girl, who smiled again before taking a seat by the window. She set up a laptop and began typing as she sipped her coffee. I watched her as she worked, her eyes completely transfixed on the screen.
“She’s been coming in here a lot these past few days,” Nicole told me, breaking my attention from the girl.
“Do you know her?” I asked.
“Nope,” said Nicole, wiping off the counter with a rag. “I think she might be new around here. I think she’s British, too. She, like, has the accent, ya know?”
“Why don’t you ask her?” I said curiously.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I guess I could.”
A man’s voice called for Nicole from the back. She hurried off, telling me she’d be right back.
I looked back at the girl. She was still typing diligently. The expression on her face was strangely both relaxed and depressed at the same time. Her hair was almond-colored and matched her eyes, and I swore she couldn’t have been older than Nicole, maybe even a teenager. After a few moments, the girl stopped typing, took a sip of coffee, then leaned back in her chair and looked up at the ceiling. The entire time, I had no idea why I was watching her.
She gazed out the window for a few seconds before returning her attention to her laptop. Before she began typing again, however, she looked over at me. When she saw I was looking at her, she gave me a really sweet smile. If I hadn’t known better, I would’ve thought we were longtime friends. I returned a smile of my own, and the girl began typing again.
“Okay, I’m back!” Nicole returned to the counter, snagging my attention away from the girl with the laptop. “What’s the matter, Krystal? You look kinda weird, or something.”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” I said, smiling weakly.
I sat in the café for a little longer with Nicole, listening to her talk about anything and everything. She never ceased to have a conversation topic, but I always found interest in what she had to say. Maybe it was because I was never a talkative person, so I thought it was somewhat fascinating that someone could never run out of anything to say, no matter how much they talked.
Checking the clock on the wall, I finished the rest of my coffee. There was still plenty of time before I had to get Anna from school, and I was planning on working on my painting a little before picking her up.
“I’m gonna get going now,” I told Nicole, standing up.
“Oh, okay!” said Nicole. “I’ll talk to ya later, then!”
“Bye,” I said, slipping my coat on. I slid a five-dollar bill across the counter to her. “Your tip, Nicole.”
“Aw, thanks. You’re the best!”
As I walked towards the door, I noticed the girl was still working on her laptop. Something inside was telling me to say something to her. Deciding not to, I pushed open the door and walked out into the brisk, cool air of autumn.
When I arrived back home, I immediately went straight into the studio. My painting was resting on the easel for me, begging for me to pick up the brush. I got situated, then continued working on it. The calm serenity that I often felt when working on art began to fill me. Before I knew it, my entire soul was in another world of creativity.
My soul. Damaged and broken. Those memories given back to me by Night Stallion still tormented me. My parents were taken when I was just a child. They were killed by the moon. My adoptive parents, Jack and Laura, weren’t even real people, but androids built using top secret technology.
Thomas’s experimental extraction of the damaged part of my soul confounded me. What was he planning on doing with it? I had intended on looking for him while I was still a teenager living in Florida, but I never found him. It was as if some unseen force had subtly prevented me from finding him, and I regretted not seeking him out more to ask him all those questions I had.
I clenched my teeth. I had told myself not to dwell on such thoughts anymore. Everything was all better at that point. Gary and I had helped James defeat Night Stallion years ago, although we had failed to kill it.
However, it was very strange that Night Stallion seemed to retreat without sustaining a lot of damage. It could’ve been my imagination, but I swore it had run away.
Darknae had been forced back and James had confirmed its diminished effects, so there was nothing to worry about anymore. I had a family now, and there was no time to think about stupid stuff. Taking a deep breath, I dipped my brush in some paint and kept going with my project.
As I was deeply concentrating on my artwork, a small beeping noise brought me back to the real world. I stood up and grabbed my phone off the desk, flipped it open, and realized that it was time to pick Anna up from school. I knew myself all too well, and if I didn’t schedule anything into my phone, I would get lost in my art and forget what I needed to do.
The elementary school was teeming with life when I arrived. I made sure to turn down the radio before reaching the heart of the parking lot. One time I had forgotten I had it blasting as I pulled into the school, and that garnered some interesting looks from other people.
Parking in my usual spot, Anna saw me and immediately ran up to the car. She opened the door and hopped in.
“Hi, Mommy!” she said happily.
“Hi, sweetie,” I said, reaching over to give her a hug. “How was school?”
“Good,” she said. “We did painting today! I’m making a painting for you and Daddy!”
“Oh, that’s nice!” I said with a smile. “I really want to see it when it’s all done.”
“I want to work hard and make it as pretty as your paintings!” Anna told me, beaming proudly.
Those words went straight to my heart. Feeling touched, I leaned over again to give Anna another hug and kiss before heading home.
Back at the house, I looked through the kitchen for something to cook. While I was still preparing dinner, Gary made it home around the time I had anticipated. Anna ran out of her room at the sound of the door opening and jumped into his open arms. I walked out of the kitchen and smiled at both of them.
“Hi, honey,” said Gary when he saw me. He picked up the slice of cake he had to set down so he could catch Anna in midair. “Uh, I didn’t know what you wanted, so I just brought you back some cake. It’s a carrot cake.”
“Okay,” I said, taking it from him, “thanks! It looks really good.”
Gary kissed me on the cheek, then took off his jacket and shoes. As he walked into our bedroom to get out of his work clothes, I went back into the kitchen to finish dinner. However, that slice of cake Gary brought back looked irresistibly tempting, so I unwrapped the cellophane, inhaled the cake, and threw the paper plate and plastic wrap away. Carrot cake … one of my favorites.
Dinner was always something I looked forward to. I loved spending time with my family, and I loved food. Putting the two together was just the greatest thing in the world. I had to be careful when I ate, though. Usually I was a pretty hasty eater, but I had to watch my manners in front of Anna so she’d have a good example.
Gary told me about his day at work, which I always enjoyed hearing about. After I planned on getting my college degree in art, I was going to start my own business as a freelance artist. That way I would be able to tell Gary about my days at work, too.
“I’m making you and Mommy a painting at school,” Anna told Gary during dinner.
“A painting?” Gary asked. “Wow, that’s cool! When will it be done so we can see it? I really want to see it.”
“Tomorrow,” said Anna, sounding like a little professional. “I’m gonna be a master painter like Mommy.”
“Then I’ll have two wonderful artists in my house,” said Gary.
Anna smiled a big toothy grin, then continued eating.
Later that night, after Gary had tucked Anna into bed, I sat with him in the living room to watch TV. I had a bag of pretzels to snack on as Gary flipped through the channels. He finally found something, so we watched it for a few minutes until the commercials came on.
“I don’t think he’ll be able to eat it all.” Gary commented on the show we were watching about a man who would travel the country to compete in eating competitions.
“I probably could,” I replied.
“I got an email from my mom today,” said Gary, turning the volume down on the TV. “She and Dad want us to go down and visit them this Christmas.”
“In Florida?” I put the bag of pretzels on the coffee table. “That sounds nice.”
“Abby and her family’s going to be there,” he said. “So, you wanna go?”
I thought about it for a second. While it was true that I wanted to visit Gary’s family, I realized that Jack and Laura were still there, too. They didn’t miss me. They couldn’t … they were just machines.
“I’d like to go,” I said.
“Okay,” said Gary, “we can get into details later. I’ll tell my mom we’re coming home for Christmas.”
A dark, disturbing feeling boiled up inside me. As much as I really wanted to see everyone again, I would’ve preferred to have them come up to Michigan and visit us. I really didn’t want to go back to Florida. Something was there, and I had a very bad feeling about it.
I didn’t want to go back to that town. My perfect world was in Michigan with my family, far away from that place. The uncomfortable feelings lingered while I watched the man on TV run out of time to finish the eating challenge.