Episode One: Newborn – Part 2

Sheila decided there was enough of a story that we should stick around for a day or two investigating. We rented the cheapest overpriced room available at the local motel. At least the motel provided free Wi-Fi. The room was small and cramped with two single beds and a small table. We set up our laptops and contemplated ordering Chinese. After several minutes of heated debate, Sheila phoned the local pizza delivery instead. She didn’t want to drive to pick up the Chinese or pay extra to have it delivered. Pizza delivery was free.

Since we were sticking around, that meant I could grab some photos of the caverns after all. Part of me was really excited at the prospect of photographing nature in all her glory and part of me just wanted to get started doing some research so that we could find out what was going on with this whole miracle baby story.

Sheila was already making phone call inquiries to the Sullivan hospital to see if anyone was willing to talk to her about Mrs. Glass. After half an hour of fruitless attempts she slammed down the phone. “Damn privacy laws. ‘Because of HIPAA, we can’t give out confidential medical information, blah blah blah.’ I swear.” Sheila fumed. “You know what? Screw it. I’m going to dress up like a nurse and snoop around.”

“Umm, I’m no expert on the law or anything, but isn’t that illegal?” I asked.

“Who cares? As long as I don’t get caught no one will notice. I’ll go tonight, do the night shift. Sneak in there before the hospital closes and steal a uniform. People do it all the time on television.”

“That’s scripted, Sheila. I don’t think it actually works like that in real life.” The knock at the door interrupted us and Sheila paid the delivery man. She opened the box on the way to the table and grabbed a slice before setting it down.

“Mmmm, this is so good.” She smacked her lips for emphasis. “I used to date this guy who was a nurse. I’m pretty sure I can pull it off. I’ll just rattle off some of the jargon I’ve overheard him say and no one will suspect a thing.”

“Right, well, if you get caught and thrown in jail don’t expect me to bail you out.”

“You’ll bail me out. I’ve got the car keys.”

***

That night Sheila snuck off to the hospital to do some snooping while she left me at the motel to worry. Investigative reporting was nowhere near as glamorous as it was on T.V. Most of the time it involved a lot of waiting. Admittedly I wasn’t really the one doing the investigating, I just did all the photography and video interviews for digital submissions. Slowly the art of printed media was giving way to the internet. In journalism you had to adapt or become obsolete. The Register News had a fledgling website but were still heavily focused on print. If we were lucky, our story would end up on the website instead of stuck somewhere on the back pages of a newspaper no one read anymore.

Sleep was out of the question. I figured that Sheila would be back by midnight at the latest. Even if the hospital locked up for the night, the Emergency department would remain open. Sheila would find a way to sneak out through there, hopefully without getting caught.

I should have been doing some research on the internet, find out more about the town we were staying in, see what kind of news had made it to the internet over the past few days. I wanted to stop by the local library to check the paper to see if anything strange had happened around the time Mrs. Glass gave birth and also around the time she’d had her miscarriage. It was impossible for the woman to have conceived again and carried an infant to full term in only five months.

“I got it!” Sheila called out triumphantly as she rushed inside. It was a little past midnight. Her eyes were glowing from the excitement of her nocturnal adventure. She held a large folder in her hand. I was surprised they even kept medical records on paper anymore. Lucky for us the investigation didn’t involve hacking into the hospital’s computer system. We would have needed more help for that and the fewer people that knew we were lawbreakers the better.

“What does it say?” I asked her. She laughed and put the folder on top of the greasy pizza box.

“I have absolutely no idea. To be honest, I was scared to death I was going to be discovered the whole time I was there. But everyone just ignored me. Weirdest thing ever. You would have thought someone would have noticed I didn’t belong. They were more worried about strange people being in the maternity ward than anything else.  I’m going to change out of these clothes.”

I picked up the folder while Sheila changed into her pajamas. We always carried an overnight bag with us because we never knew when a story was going to be interesting enough to require an overnight stay. Up until this point, we’d never had to use it. Most likely the clothes inside were pretty wrinkled from staying folded up in the bag for so long.

The folder Sheila had brought back contained more than just the medical records for Mrs. Glass. I decided to wait on snooping through those until Sheila finished changing so she could tell me what else she’d been looking for. I flipped through Mrs. Glass’ file instead. The documents confirmed that she’d had a miscarriage five months ago. It also confirmed that she had given birth to a full term infant. The doctors had been thorough in their examination. How was it even possible?

“When I was hunting for Mrs. Glass’ file, I thought it might be a good idea to check to see if there was anything else weird that was going on. I found a record for another woman who had miscarried her baby two days after Mrs. Glass. But no fetal remains were recovered in her case. And the woman had had an ultrasound the previous day showing a perfectly healthy four month old fetus. Had it survived, it would have been born around the same time as Mrs. Glass’ baby. But somehow, that woman miscarried a perfectly healthy baby and it completely disappeared.”

“This case is getting weirder and weirder,” I agreed as I read the paperwork Sheila had confiscated. “Mrs. Glass’ medical records confirm she miscarried the baby at four months and five months later gave birth to a healthy full term baby.”

“There is no way that is possible. Something freaky is going on and we have got to do some more digging to find out what it is. It looks like you won’t be getting credit for writing this piece after all.”

***

The next morning we decided to save time and money by getting the motel’s free continental breakfast, delivered to our door. It consisted of weak coffee and glazed donuts. The donuts were fresh so that was a plus right there. Sheila spoke around mouthfuls of donut.

“OK, so this morning we are going to hit the local library, do some research on the area and see what news has made it to the local newspapers. Then, if we find anything weird going on…”

“What we’ve found isn’t weird enough?” I mumbled almost unintelligibly with my mouth full of donut.

“Chew, swallow, then talk,” Sheila scolded me in a perfect imitation of my mom. I almost snorted the donut out of my nose. She looked at me and shook her head before continuing. “If we find anything weird going on, we’ll go to the police station and talk to a few cops to see if we can get some details.”

“Sounds great, Sheila, but when do I get to take pictures of the caves?” I asked with my mouth empty this time.

“Later on, I promise. Right now though we need to do some digging before anyone, namely Mrs. Glass, notices that we are snooping around.”

“You think she’ll run?” I asked.

“If she’s doing anything wrong she will,” Sheila nodded. “Wouldn’t you?”

“Fair point,” I said and scarfed down the rest of my glazed donut. We flipped a coin to see who would have first dibs on the bathroom, and the hot water. Sheila won.

One hour and a cold shower later, we were ready to head out the door.

Sheila pulled up the town of Sullivan on Google maps on her tablet. The library and police station were practically at opposite ends of town. After filling up the SUV with overpriced gas meant for tourists, we headed to the library. It was tiny. Small town, small town library. Hopefully they had everything we needed.

We walked inside and Sheila made a beeline to the help desk. I meandered over to the periodicals section. There were several newspapers pressed into wooden rods. The rods neatly rested into their individual cradles. While the effect was one of tidiness and organization, I knew the real purpose of the rods was to prevent people from stealing the newspapers.

It took me only a few minutes to find the local paper. There was about a week’s worth of papers on the rack. The rest of them had most likely been scanned to digital format or possibly microfiche depending on how behind technology the library was.

I scanned through the headlines and noticed nothing out of ordinary for the day that Mrs. Glass had had her baby. As I shuffled through the remaining papers, I noticed a few odd stories jump out and grab my attention. ‘Police suspect infant smuggling ring operating out of local hospital.’ ‘Security heightened at Hospital Maternity Ward as police seek out persons of interest.’ I set aside the newspapers containing any information on missing infants and then hunted down Sheila. She was placing one of those old fashioned spools in a microfiche reader. Apparently the local library had not caught up with the times.

“Check it out,” I greeted Sheila and showed her what I’d found. “There’s a baby smuggling ring going on in this town.”

“Look at this,” Sheila said as she brought an article into focus. “Two days after Mrs. Glass had her miscarriage, the first baby was reported missing from the maternity ward of the hospital. The hospital tried to cover it up and the director got fired over it. Since then there’s been more that have gone missing.”

“Yeah, according to the last story I read, the total is 5.”

“One for each month of Mrs. Glass’ remaining pregnancy.” Sheila paused and tapped her pen to her lips, lost in thought for a moment. “You think she made some deal with the smuggling ring or bought one of the smuggled babies?”

“No,” I shook my head. “The hospital did thorough testing on her. She gave birth to the baby that she has.”

“I know this has something to do with Mrs. Glass. I’m almost certain of it,” Sheila insisted “But I don’t have any idea how she can be involved in all of this. Let’s get some copies of what we’ve found so far and then go check out the police station to see if they can give any more details on the case. Maybe they’ve already got a suspect or some leads or something.”

“If it’s an ongoing investigation, they may not be willing to speak about it for fear they might spook the perp.”

“Look at you using Crime Scene jargon,” Sheila teased me. She knew that watching criminal investigation dramas on television was my guilty pleasure.

I ignored her teasing and set to work making copies of the articles from the newspapers which was a far more difficult task than one would expect. After a few minutes of struggling to balance the wooden poles and not rip the newspapers to shreds, one of the librarians took pity on me and offered to help. She slid the papers from their poles, one at a time, so that I could make copies of them. I thanked her profusely when I had finished. Sheila leaned against the wall with her stack of papers. She was flipping through them and reading the articles, trying to connect the pieces of the puzzle we had uncovered.

“Ready?” Sheila asked.

I nodded, grabbed my stack of papers and headed to the door. “Let’s go see what the police have to say.”

***

Sheila drove in silence to the police station, both of us lost in thought trying to puzzle out this ever increasing mystery. There had to be something that tied everything together, something that made it all make sense. But every avenue I explored ended up as a dead end. It all circled back to Mrs. Glass and her baby.

Unlike the rest of the town, the police station was fairly large and well-staffed. I realized that as a tourist town, they probably needed the extra space for unruly troublemakers that came into town. The officers we spoke to were all friendly and polite. I could tell they wanted to help but couldn’t. I was beginning to think we weren’t going to get anywhere when we finally started getting some answers. But, like the rest of this case, the answers we got didn’t make much sense.

“Listen, we aren’t supposed to give details of a case while it is still under investigation. As long as you keep this off the record, I’ll tell you a few things to, ah, help move you along in your investigation.” Officer Bailey was young, probably fresh out of the police academy. The way he was looking at my friend made me suspect he had ulterior motives. “Follow me.”

We walked with him through the precinct, ignored by the other cops who were busy working cases, filling out paperwork or processing some juvenile delinquent that had probably been caught shop lifting. Officer Bailey opened the door for us and motioned us into the cruiser parking lot.

“None of this goes on record and if you mention my name at all in the papers,” he whispered nervously. Sheila promised him that nothing he said would be on record. She took out a pen and paper and took notes the old fashioned way. No recordings. No photos. Bailey relaxed and opened up after that. “We’ve got nothing. In the five months, well almost six now, that we’ve been investigating this, we haven’t had one credible witness. No one except the local drunk saw anything. Nothing was captured on any of the cameras at the hospital or if it was, it’s been tampered with. We’ve got extra officers watching the hospital with the hopes of seeing something the next time this happens. And we know baby number six will go missing soon. We just don’t know when.”

“You said there was a witness?” Sheila asked. Even if the police didn’t think he was a credible witness, Sheila would still want to interview him for the article.

“Yes, Billy Wilkins, the town drunk. He swears up and down he was sober when he saw what happened. Swears he’d been sober for weeks. But he sure smelled like a brewery when we interviewed him. Said what he saw made him fall off the wagon. He said if he was seeing monsters while he was sober, he might as well keep drinking.”

“Monsters?”

“Yeah, claims he saw a harpy take off with a baby from the hospital. He works nights as a janitor for the hospital. They don’t care if he drinks as long as he does his job. And he’s a functioning alcoholic for the most part. We made him sell his Caddy a few years back after he kept calling to have it pulled out of the ditch. Told him either sell it or we’d make sure he didn’t drink and drive by putting him in jail. So now he walks everywhere.”

“A harpy?” Sheila closed her notebook. I think she suspected that Officer Bailey was just yanking her chain.

“I know it sounds crazy,” the officer agreed, “but that’s what Billy claims he saw. You can interview him. Who knows, maybe you can get a story out of him that makes more sense.”

“Where can we find Billy Wilkins?” I asked. Even if Sheila didn’t want to follow up on this ridiculous lead, I still wanted to hear the guy’s story.

“Probably the local bar. Offer to buy him a drink, if he’s not too drunk already. He’ll talk. He might already be talking about it to anybody who will listen and buy him beer.”

“Thanks, officer,” I said.

“Sure, no problem, oh and hey, here is my card. Should you need me for anything,” He winked at Sheila. She rolled her eyes at him. I grabbed the card and shoved it in my pocket. We might need his help again. No need to burn down the bridge.

“Come on. I want to see what this guy Billy Wilkins has to say.” I grabbed Sheila’s arm and practically dragged her back through the building to our car.

“You want to interview the town drunk?” She asked. “Seriously? Even if he says something, we can’t put that in the story. Our star witness to the investigation can’t be the town drunk.”

“Why not? Reporters use unnamed sources all the time for their articles.”

“There’s this pesky little thing called credibility in journalism,” Sheila insisted.

“Fine, whatever. I admit it. I’m just curious and what he has to say about the harpy. Indulge me.”

***

“It looks like there are two sports bars in town, one with a night club,” I said as I looked through the Google map on my phone.

“Give me directions for the one without the night club. Something tells me our guy isn’t the clubbing type.” I rattled off the address and soon we were pulling into the parking lot of the bar.

Once inside, it only took a few moments to scan the place and find our informant. He was the only person swilling drinks at the bar at this time of day. We sat on either side of him at the bar.

“Excuse me, Mr. Wilkins?” Sheila flashed a winning smile in his direction when he looked at her.

“Who wants to know?” He asked.

“My friend and I are journalists doing a story about the missing babies and I was told that you are a witness to the last crime.” Sheila motioned to the bartender to bring the man another beer.

“Well, aren’t you just a pretty thing. Like I told the Sheriff, it was a harpy what done it. He didn’t believe me, so that’s that.”

“A harpy?” I asked. “Can you tell us what you saw?”

“Well, I was doing my job, cleaning the maternity ward floor and I came to the room they keep all the babies in. I seen a woman stand over one of them plastic baby containers. She was breast feedin’ the baby, which I thought was odd ‘cause I ain’t ever seen ‘em let a mom in there. They usually take the baby to the momma. Anyway, I admit it, I was hopin’ to see something, if you know what I mean,” he winked. “Anyway, I snuck up closer and got a good look at her. She had on an owl mask so I couldn’t see her face. But she had these big talons or talon boots and this bird costume on. And her chest was just exposed so I could see everything.” He paused for a few moments.

“Man, she sure had a nice ra…”

“Right so,” Sheila interrupted him, “she was breastfeeding the baby, then what happened?”

“Well, after she fed the baby for a few moments it got real quiet, like it was asleep. She carefully put the baby inside of a bag and carried it up to the roof. I was following behind her but she never saw me. I wanted to see her boobs again. Anyway, when she got to the roof, she just starts flappin’ her bat wings, grabs the bag by her talon feet and flew off.”

“Okay, so let me make sure I got this right. A giant owl with boobs, talons and bat wings flew off with the baby. And this is the story you told the police?”

“Yes ma’am. Like I said. It was a harpy.  I even collected some evidence for them but they didn’t want it.” He patted his shirt pocket. “I’ll give it to you if you buy me another beer.”

Sheila paid the bartender for another beer and the man handed over a plastic baggie. Inside was a handful of bird feathers. “Them’s harpy feathers, in case you were wonderin’. Anyway, that’s my story. Make of it what you will. I told the police I was stone cold sober that day but they didn’t believe me. I figured I might as well go back to drinkin’. More fun that way.”

“Thank you for your time, Mr. Wilkins,” Sheila said as she got up. She handed me the plastic bag of feathers and I put it in my pocket.

“That was a dead end,” she said as we walked out the door.

“What now?” I asked.

“Well, we haven’t interviewed Mr. Glass yet. Let me call Mrs. Glass and see if I can set up a time to interview him. I’ll just tell her that our boss loved the story we had so far but wanted to include the dad. Make it a family piece.”

As we sat in the car, Sheila tried Mrs. Glass’ number a few times but she didn’t pick up.

“You think she bolted?” I asked.

“Looks that way. Time for plan B.”

“What’s plan B?”

“We break into Mrs. Glass’ house and snoop around.”

***

“Do you even know what you’re doing?” I asked Sheila. We were standing in Mrs. Glass’ backyard, snooping around in broad daylight. Sheila had tried all the doors and windows. Everything was locked down tight. I looked over my shoulder to see if anyone was watching us. Mrs. Glass’ backyard was surrounded by a privacy fence but that wouldn’t stop nosy neighbors from snooping if we gave them a reason to.

“Of course I do. We just need to break a window with something. Look around for a big rock.”

The first rock I picked up was a hide-a-key. “Or we could just use this key I found.”

Sheila dropped the rock she’d been holding. “Good idea. We’ll do that.” She grabbed the key from my hand and unlocked the back door. We slipped inside.  The house was surprisingly dark inside with the shades drawn. Neither of us had had the sense to bring a flashlight. We used the light from our cell phones instead. It made an eerie blue glow.

We silently searched through the house and found nothing out of the ordinary. I reluctantly snooped through Mrs. Glass’ underwear drawer. I was going to be scarred for life.

“Basement?” I asked. Sheila nodded and we searched around for the stairs. The door to the basement wasn’t even locked. But the steps creaked as we went down them. Even though I knew the house was empty, I was still scared. I stuck close to Sheila.

The basement was unfinished and it looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in ages. There were cobwebs everywhere and probably several spiders lurking about. The whole place had a creepy Halloween haunted house vibe to it. The uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach was starting to make me nauseous and a little short of breath. We continued to move forward until we came to a door.

Sheila turned the door knob and walked inside. “Wow,” she exclaimed in surprise. “Our Mrs. Glass is into the occult, big time.”

I followed Sheila into the room. There was a large alter with a wooden pentagram hanging above it. On the altar were some statues of Greek gods, different colored glass candle holders, a silver cup and bowl and double edged knife with pentagrams carved on the wooden handle. “She’s a witch.”

“A New Age witch,” Sheila corrected. I didn’t even know there were different kinds of witches but apparently Sheila did. “Let’s snoop around and see if we can find her Book of Shadows.”

We began searching the room. There was a bookshelf full of new age books on crystals, green witchcraft, ghosts and all kinds of weird supernatural stuff. I flipped through a few of the books. They were all printed within the last ten years. There were tarot decks, crystal balls and pendulums neatly laid out on other shelves in the room. There was even a creepy looking cow skull that I refused to touch. Sheila picked it up and mouthed the word “plastic.”

I was about to give up when Sheila motioned me over to a second, smaller bookshelf. There were two pieces of shiny paper stuck inside a how-to book on Gardnerian Witchcraft. The paper looked old. On it was a bunch of symbols and swirls written in a strange brownish colored ink. “Is that blood?” I asked Sheila, immediately grossed out by the prospect of some document written in human blood.

“I think so,” she nodded. “This is some kind of spell work. Ancient magic. Not like the rest of this New Age stuff.”

“Can you read it?” I asked her, surprised that Sheila even knew anything about any of this stuff. Apparently my friend had secrets I didn’t even know about.

“No, but I know someone who can.”

“Who?” I asked as Sheila started tidying up the room. She kept hold of the two pieces of paper with the spells written on them and motioned for me to follow her.

“My Nonna. She’ll be able to tell us what this is, what these spells do.”

“Wait, are you telling me your grandma is a witch?”

***

Episode One: Newborn

Part 1

How do you begin a story when you don’t remember the exact moment that your life changed forever? Do you start with the dream about your dead brother? No, wait, we’ll get back to that. Let’s start this story before then, before David died. How can you care about my life or my brother’s life… or death, if you don’t even know our story, if you don’t even know who we are?

It’s important that you know who we are, or at least who I am. The story that I’m about to tell you, well it sounds pretty crazy, pretty messed up. It sounds like something from a Hollywood movie or a television show. If I hadn’t lived through it, if others didn’t share the same experiences that I did, or at least most of them, I would think I was crazy too. Please, just hear me out and afterwards, if it’s too far-fetched for you to believe, well, it’s okay if you want to think of this as just another one of those crazy fantasy novels. I wouldn’t blame you if you did. I wish it was just a story.

Let’s start with my brother David. When he was ten years old he got one of those GI Joe dolls as a Christmas gift. It was one of the really old ones, the kind they don’t make anymore. I don’t know where my mom found it, probably at a garage sale, but it was still brand new in the box. My brother never put that thing down and even took it with him to Afghanistan, for good luck, he’d said. David knew since he was little what he wanted to be, a soldier, fighting for freedom and doing the right thing. It probably had something to do with the fact that our dad had been a military man. He’d died serving our country, fighting the never-ending war against terrorism. We were just little kids back then. I don’t even remember him, but David was old enough to remember. To him, dad was the hero that he wanted to be when he grew up.

It feels right starting this story with David, my older brother, my bodyguard, my best friend. I remember the fight we had when he enlisted. I told him not to do it. I said I didn’t want him to end up like dad. He promised me he wouldn’t. He said that combat is mostly just drones and computers now and that he would be totally safe. I didn’t believe him. I was so angry at him that I refused to talk to him the last night he was home, before he went away to start basic training. I ignored his calls until mom yelled at me and told me to talk to him. I still feel guilty about that because I was basically a mean and nasty teenager at that point. But nothing I said seemed to phase David. I think he’d grown up a lot and seemed to understand that my anger at him was just my messed up way of telling him that I didn’t want to lose him. I wish he’d listened to me.

David is three years older than I am. I was sixteen when he left to join the military. When most kids were picking out what college or university they wanted to graduate from, David was planning his military career. He wanted to make a lifelong career out of it, move up the ranks, and eventually retire a well-respected and decorated veteran. David was only 24 years old when he died. He died a hero, saving others and decorated with honors. At least part of his dream came true. Which means, of course, that my story, the real story, the one that changed my life, began when I turned 21.

Several years after dad had passed away, mom met a very nice man at a support group for single parents. Archie Wheeler was a simple man who owned a construction company and was raising two boys. His wife had recently died of cancer and he was finding it difficult to cope without her. He and mom hit it off right away and a year later they started dating. I was ten at the time and I certainly didn’t make things any easier. I accused her of trying to replace dad, of trying to replace me. Archie was so incredibly kind hearted and patient with me. After a while I stopped being so angry at him because I’d found friendship in the most unlikely of places, his sons Mark and Michael.

That was also the year that I met Sheila Gibson.

You have to understand that me, Sheila and the boys, we’re a team. We’re like family. We take care of each other. Sheila and I have gone on double dates together, took our dates to the prom together, we even took some of the same courses together at college. And now we work together as journalists. So when my step-dad, Archie, gave us the duplex, of course I asked Sheila to move in. She is my best friend.

When I say, us, I mean myself, Michael and Mark. We share two halves of a duplex. The boys live on one side and Sheila and I live on the other. My step-dad owns Wheeler construction and the duplex was the display model for the last subdivision that they built. He bought it for us to live in because he wanted to be able to keep an eye on us. I also think he just wants to make sure that the boys show up for work every day. I think Mark enjoys the work but I know that Michael would rather be a mechanic. Archie, however, has other ideas. He wants the boys to take over the company when he retires. I can’t really blame him for that. He’s put a lot of work into the business over the years and now it is one of the most sought after construction companies in the area.

This takes us to the beginning of the story, well not really the beginning per say, but close enough. I could spend hours telling you about all the antics that Sheila and I got up to as teens and all the times that Mark and Michael bailed us out of trouble. But I know that you are anxious to get to the story, to find out what happened.

The story of what happened begins with an argument over the Super Bee.

***

“What the hell, Michael?” Sheila was angry, really angry, tapping her foot with her hands on her hips looking like her mom, angry.

“What?” Michael asked as he carried another box over to our garage. “I need to make room for The Bee”. Sometimes Michael could be selfish and this was one of those times. As soon as he put down the box, Sheila picked it up, carried it across the garage, dropped it behind the Super Bee and glared at Michael.

“Your box, your garage,” she spit out, her Irish temper flaring. “I swear if you bring one more box over to our side…”

“Guys, let’s not argue over a bunch of boxes, okay?” It was time, probably past time, for me to mediate this argument. I looked around for Mark. With his even temper, which he had obviously inherited from their dad, he would be able to calm his brother down before things escalated to the breaking dishes stage. I started to wonder if maybe I had made a mistake in inviting Sheila to move in. Michael and Sheila had a past and she had assured me that she was over him. I was beginning to think maybe she was lying about that.

“Hey, what’s going on guys?” Mark had arrived and I breathed a sigh of relief. Sheila pointed to the Super Bee in their garage and our, rapidly filling up with boxes, garage. I knew she was angry because she wanted to put her SUV in the garage and that was out of the question with all the boxes piled up. All the boxes full of their stuff.

“We got a basement,” Mark shook his head at the two of them. “Come on, Michael, help me carry the boxes to the basement.” Michael sighed and grabbed one of the boxes. He shot me a sheepish look and followed his brother. I could hear Mark scolding him as they moved out of sight.

“You sure you are ok with living here, Sheila?” I asked her. The last thing I wanted was for my friend to be miserable. I reached out and touched her shoulder. She looked at me and nodded her head.

“Yeah, I’m fine. I just wish your brother wasn’t such a dick, you know?” She picked up one of the boxes that actually belonged to us and carried it into the house to unpack. I picked up another box and trailed along behind her. “I swear, you’d think that damn car was his baby.” The car was the reason why they had split up in the first place. Sheila said Michael was more concerned about her accidentally scratching his car than he was about hurting her feelings. Now, don’t go thinking that Michael is an irredeemable bad guy because he’s not. If some guy was hurting Sheila, he’d be the first one to knock him out. But if it came down to spending time with Sheila or working on his car, the car would come first. Every time. Even if it was just a break light that was out.

We started unpacking boxes in silence. What could I possibly say to my friend to make her feel any better about Michael’s obsession with The Bee? The worst part was that my brother didn’t even drive the car. Most of the time it sat in the garage with its classic license plates. The only time he drove it was to load it onto a trailer to haul it to some car show. Even Mark was annoyed with him, mainly because he had to use his truck to haul the car to the shows.  Michael would never part with that yellow car. He was too proud of it. I had my suspicions that he planned to be buried in the thing.

After a few minutes of working in uncomfortable silence, my cell phone vibrated in my pants pocket. “Hey mom,” I said by way of greeting as I excused myself to talk to my mom in semi-private.

“What happened to giving me a call once you made it to the house?” I thought mom wouldn’t be that annoyed that I had forgotten to call her, but I still felt a twinge of guilt. I loved her to pieces but she could be a helicopter mom sometimes.

“Sorry, I forgot,” I admitted. It was usually better to just say sorry up front to save myself the hour long lecture about how much she worried about me when I didn’t call her. Guilt trip parenting 101. My mom could give lectures. Seriously.

“Try not to forget it next time,” she said, her tone serious. “That’s not really the reason I called. Archie called to let me know you guys made it there safe. Apparently Mark took time out of his busy schedule to call his dad and let him know you guys all made it there in one piece…” I tuned mom out for a few moments as she continued on about how I should be more considerate like Mark. “… There’s a box that contains your dad’s medals and I want to make sure they didn’t get lost.”

“His medals?” I asked. What I really wanted was for her to repeat that last thing she said without her realizing I hadn’t been paying attention for the past ten minutes she’d been talking to me. Sheila probably thought I had abandoned her to do all the unpacking by now. “I thought you were keeping those.”

“No, David wanted you to have some of your dad’s personal stuff. I have the folded flag and some other things. He told me before he left for Afghanistan that he wanted to make sure you had Dad’s service medals and his dog tags, to keep them safe for him. They’re packed away in one of the boxes marked fragile. I wanted to make sure you got them. I’m sure Mark will make a nice display case for them if you ask him. No need to spend money on some piece of junk made in China when your brother is such a skilled carpenter. That way, when David gets home, you can give them back to him as a gift.” Once again I tuned her out and inserted a few affirmative noises here and there into the phone conversation so she would think I was paying attention. “Make sure you give me a call once you find them,” she insisted before hanging up. Mom must have really been annoyed with me. I sighed and pocketed my phone.

“Mom troubles?” Sheila asked when I returned to the kitchen.

“Yeah, she’s pissed I forgot to call her. She’ll get over it,” I shrugged and returned to the boxes, searching through them for the box that mom had specified. “Would you do me a favor?” I asked after a couple minutes of fruitless searching through the two boxes marked “fragile” that I had found. “Let me know if you find a box that has my dad’s military stuff in it. Mom insists I call her the minute I find it.”

“Today is your lucky day, then,” Sheila responded with a big smile. “I already found that box and put it in your room. I figured you’d want to unpack that yourself.”

***

It must have been hard for mom to pack away Dad’s medals and give them to me. At least when I was home she could pretend to be keeping them for herself. Of course she had Archie to take care of her now, but I knew that she missed my dad. They were soul mates.

As I lay in bed that night, I traced my fingertips over dad’s name on his dog tags. Elijah Collay. There were photos of him but since I had no memories of my dad, he never seemed like a real person, just stories my mom told me. But holding his dog tags gave him a tangible existence that I hadn’t felt before. My dad was once a living, breathing man with hopes and fears and dreams and love for his family just like any other man. I fell asleep with the tags clutched in my hand and the chain wrapped around my wrist like rosary beads.

Thinking back on that night, that first night I had the first dream, the dream that changed my life, I can’t help but think that maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that mom sent me Dad’s stuff or that I fell asleep with his dog tags in my hands. I wonder if this newfound connection with my dad somehow brought me closer to my brother. Maybe that’s how he was able to visit me in my dreams.

“Wow, Celia, you’ve grown up so much since I’ve been away.” My brother smiled at me. He looked like he hadn’t changed a bit since I had last seen him. He was still in his high school varsity jacket, looking every bit like the quarterback that he had been when I had said goodbye to him a few days before he’d left for basic training, the day we had had our fight.

“You look the same,” I replied, confused that I had changed so much but he had stayed the same.

“That’s because this is what I was wearing the last time we spoke,” he gestured around the room, “In the kitchen, at home.” I looked around and realized what this was.

“This is a dream,” I said and looked at him for affirmation. He nodded and smiled. “Listen, David, what I said when you enlisted, I’m sorry.” I recognized this dream. But it wasn’t the same dream I always had, about the same argument we had before he left, and the mean things I said to him that I wanted to take back seconds after they were out of my mouth. I wanted to forget the look of hurt in his eyes that he’d tried to hide. I told myself that my words didn’t hurt him but I knew it wasn’t true. The dreams reminded me of that.

“I know,” he said softly, “but that’s not why I’m here.” The dream shifted and David changed. He was older, lines of sorrow and worry etched into his face. No longer a carefree teenager but instead a man in military uniform, a man who had seen things I would never understand, a man who had risked his life in service to his country. This was a new David hardened by experience and haunted by what he’d done.

“Listen, this is important and I don’t have much time.” He took my hands in his and smiled a sad smile of longing and regret. “I need you to do something for me.”

“Anything. Just tell me what you need.”

“Tomorrow, the Register News is going to send you and Sheila out to interview a woman for a fluff piece about a miracle baby. Sheila will want to say no. You need to get her to say yes. You both have to take this job.” He let go of my hands and took a step back. “Promise me.”

“I promise.” As soon as I spoke the words, the dream shifted again.

We were no longer standing in the kitchen but instead we were on a battlefield in some foreign country I didn’t recognize. My brother was lying on the ground next to a mangled vehicle. Pieces of shrapnel peppered his left side and leg. He was slowly bleeding out on the ground while trying to crawl to the radio to call for help. This was my deepest fear coming to life before my eyes, something I would normally not even allow myself to think about.

I raced to him and tried to put my hands on his leg to stop the blood but my hands just went through him like he was a hologram. He looked directly into my eyes and said “I’m sorry Cece. I’m so sorry.” Then he closed his eyes and I could feel him giving up, giving in to the darkness. I wanted to yell at him, I wanted to shake him, I wanted to tell him to hang in there until help arrived, but I couldn’t make a sound. I watched helplessly as my brother died in front of my eyes.

I awoke drenched in sweat, bleeding from dad’s dog tags that I still clutched tightly in my hand.

***

“Seriously?” Sheila sat back in the chair, crossed her arms and glared at our boss. I sighed and shifted in my chair uncomfortably. How was I going to tell Sheila that I had dreamed about this last night and that in my dream my brother, who was away in Afghanistan, wanted us to take the assignment?

“Listen, you both are new at this,” Derrick Howard leaned forward in his chair. He was one of those men that made being bald look good. “I get it. And I’ve got a really good feeling about you two, but let’s be honest. I can’t afford to give the best assignments to a couple kids just out of college. Your portfolio is impressive, don’t get me wrong. I love the writing. I love the photos. I love the collaboration. But here’s the thing. If I give you a great story, right up front, what are the rest of my guys going to say about that? I’ll tell you what they’ll say. They’ll say screw this, I’m going to the Post. And I can’t afford to lose my best journalists to the biggest paper in the area. So, you see my dilemma.”

“Everybody loves babies,” I offered sheepishly. Sheila glared at me and I squirmed uncomfortably like a bug caught under her fingernail. “How bad can it be?”

“Tell me I did not waste four years of my life getting a journalism degree only to write fluff pieces about babies.”

“It’s not just any fluff piece about a baby,” Howard offered, sliding a manila folder across the desk with a slender mocha fingertip. “It’s a story about a miracle baby. A birth the doctors say is impossible. Woman has what looks like a miscarriage months before. She thinks she lost the baby, the doctors say she lost the baby, yet now, here she is, the proud mommy of a beautiful healthy baby. Now, you tell me there’s not a feel good story in all that.”

“Well that is pretty weird,” Sheila admitted. I knew that if she was curious I would only have to nudge her a little bit to get her on the hook.

“And you love mysteries,” I reminded her. “This story is a total mystery just waiting to be solved. By us,” I added for emphasis with an encouraging smile.  Sheila narrowed her eyes and blinked at me, suspicious.

“Why are you so interested in this crap story?” Sheila finally asked me and gave me the look. I knew that look. Howard sighed, probably regretting his decision to hire us.

“No reason,” I squeaked and backpedaled. “The sooner we get this fluff piece done, the sooner we can get to working on those award winning stories, right?”

“I don’t believe you,” Sheila said “but we’ll do this story. I swear if this turns out to be a crap article you will be the first photographer in the history of journalism to be credited with writing it.”

“Great,” Howard said and stood up, completely ignoring the fact that Sheila was still angry. “All the details are inside the folder. Keep me updated on how the story goes. I want a fantastic piece with some amazing photos.” He practically pushed us out the door. “Call me,” he smiled at us encouragingly and slammed the door to his office shut.

“Well, that went well, don’t you think?” I asked Sheila. She just rolled her eyes at me and shoved the folder into my hands.

“My life is hell,” Sheila muttered as she stalked off. The other journalists slunk deeper into their chairs and avoided eye contact. I didn’t blame them. After a few moments of awkward apologetic stammering, I excused myself and scurried to catch up.

***

I sat on the couch thumbing through the folder that Howard had given us. The first page was just a Google map printout of the location. The second page held what little information there was from the person who had called in the tip. As I was reading, Sheila walked into the room and sat down next to me. She pulled the file from my hand without comment. A small rectangle fluttered to the floor. I picked it up. It was a postcard from Meramec caverns.

“Sullivan, huh? Isn’t that where we went on that grade school trip to Meramec caverns?” She asked. I flicked the postcard at her and it bounced off her shoulder. She glared at me. “Real mature, Cece.”

I ignored her obvious attempt to rile me with my childhood nickname. “Yeah, it would be great if I could get some shots of the caverns while we are there.”

“I don’t think they let you take pictures. Probably afraid the flash from your camera will knock down a stalactite or some such nonsense.”

“More like they just want you to buy their overpriced photos from the gift shop. Besides, we are reporters. We have a press pass. I’ll just fib and tell them we’re doing a piece on the caverns if anyone asks what I’m doing.”

“I’m a reporter, you are just a photographer.” Sheila never missed an opportunity to remind me.

“Whatever,” I said in my most immature voice. “The drive is only like an hour and a half. Probably take less than an hour to interview the mom. Then I’ll get a few pictures of her holding the baby. And we can spend the rest of the afternoon being touristy.”

“You can spend the rest of the afternoon being touristy. Those caves are full of bats and bat poop,” Sheila shook her head. “No thank you.”

“Guano,” I corrected her. She gave me the look again. Twice in one day. She was half Irish but she was also half Italian. I was doomed. “Since when have you ever been squeamish about anything?” I asked her.

“Since bats carried rabies,” she stood up and smacked me with the folder. “Now, come on, let’s get a move on. Grab your camera equipment and stuff. While you are taking pictures of the caves, I am going to do some snooping around. See if I can dig up some dirt on this ‘mom’.” Sheila made air quotes around the word mom. “I am not sold on this whole miracle baby story. Something fishy is going on. I can feel it in my gut.” Her stomach growled.

“I think that’s hunger. We can stop for breakfast along the way.”

***

“Mrs. Glass, why don’t you tell us what happened.” Sheila sat cross legged on a chair across from the young mother. The baby was greedily sucking on a bottle. I had set up my camera to film the interview session and was making sure that everything was recording smoothly. We always filmed interviews to ensure that all quotes in article were accurate. So far we hadn’t had anyone refuse to be filmed for an interview. Most people just wanted their fifteen minutes of fame.

Mrs. Glass brushed a few strands of hair from her face. “That video isn’t going to be shown publicly, right? I’m a mess.” She laughed nervously and the baby squirmed.

“No, ma’am,” I reassured her.

“Well, in that case.” She smiled and looked at the infant in her arms. “She’s such a little miracle. We named her Hope. I know, it’s an old fashioned name but Stan said no when I suggested we name her Miracle. He thought that was too modern. I’m Veronica by the way. Veronica Glass.” She laughed nervously.

“She’s a beautiful baby,” Sheila said. I knew she was trying to get the woman to relax so she would open up and tell the story. “You and your husband are very lucky.”

“Oh, you have no idea. Let’s see, I was four months along when I started bleeding and having cramps. Stan rushed me to the hospital. This wasn’t our first rodeo. It would be our fourth, no fifth, yes fifth, miscarriage. I was such a mess, cried the whole way there.” She blinked her eyes several times. “Gosh, look at that, I’m tearing up just thinking about it.”

“Take your time,” Sheila said, sympathetically and handed her a tissue. Despite her flaws and her temper, Sheila had a natural gift when it came to interviewing people.

“Well, the doctors took one look and rushed me in to have an ultrasound done. They said there wasn’t a heartbeat and the baby had died. Well, you know we were just devastated. All I wanted to do was go home and bury myself in blankets and just cry. Stan took me home after that. They asked me if I wanted to induce labor so we could bury the remains. We’d done that before and it doesn’t make the loss any easier. So I just shook my head and we went home.

“I thought that was the end of it and then a few days ago, bam. The cramps started up again. I didn’t know what was going on. Stan was away at work and I was by myself. I was going to call him but the pain was just so overwhelming. Then my water broke. I can tell you I was shocked. I ended up having the baby on the kitchen floor without any help at all. When Stan got home he rushed us up to the hospital. They checked us over. The doctors said I was fine. We were both fine. And then they sent us home.”

“Wow, what an amazing story. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.” Sheila stood and flipped her notebook closed. Do you have a bathroom I can use? Celia will need to take a few pictures for the article, so please don’t get up.”

“Sure, down the hall, second door on the left.”

I gave Sheila a quizzical look and she motioned for me to keep the woman busy. I knew she was plotting something. It probably involved some unethical snooping around the house.

“Why don’t you hold the baby up a bit more so we can get some close up pictures of her adorable little face,” I practically cooed at the woman. She beamed at the praise of her baby and I was able to get several good shots before Sheila returned.

I saw Sheila fold up a piece of paper and stick it in her pocket. Great, now we were thieves as well as snoops. “We all done here?” Sheila asked me while nodding at the woman and giving her a reassuring smile.

“That baby is totally photogenic. I can tell she’s going to be a model when she grows up.” Sheila elbowed me.

“We’ll be in touch and let you know when the article runs in case you want to let all your friends and family know.” She handed the woman our business card. “In the meantime, if you can think of any other details that you think are important to the story, please feel free to call the number on the card.”

“Thank you so much for your time, Mrs. Glass. It’s been a real pleasure working with you.”

Mrs. Glass stood up, cradling the baby who was now fussing. The baby was making grunting noises and squirming. “Please, let me walk you to the door,” she insisted.

On the way back to the car, I confronted Sheila, “You could’ve gotten us both in trouble,” I hissed at her.

“It’s totally worth it,” Sheila stated, mysteriously. “That woman is hiding something. I know it.” She pulled the paper out of her pocket and handed it to me. “Don’t look at it now. Just keep walking to the car. You can check it out later on. I’m going to go see if I can round up more medical records from that hospital visit.”

“You got her medical records?” I asked as she opened the driver’s side door.

“No, I got her discharge papers from the hospital saying she miscarried. She signed off on having the fetal remains buried.”

“That’s not what she said.”

“I know. I think she’s lying to us. The question is, if she lost her baby, where’d she get that one?”

“And, why isn’t anyone looking for it?”

***