“We need gas. I’ll get drinks, too.”
He pulled onto the Dublin, Georgia exit off Interstate 16. They were two hours from their weekend getaway, Savannah, Georgia. Caleb arrived at a rundown Exxon with two pumps. He coldy removed the keys from the ignition. Shane got out too. Her face was filled with bewilderment and anger.
“Caleb, you just cut off the last part of two teenaged girls’ favorite song.”
He frowned and handed Shane the car keys then ran his gas card. There was no latch to hold the pump in place. Caleb threw his fists in frustration.
“Why did I have to pick such a redneck gas station?”
His chest spasmed and he dropped to his left knee. Shane changed her look to worry. She hugged his left shoulder with her right hip.
“You’re scaring me! Tell me what’s wrong!”
Caleb didn’t know. Two weeks shy of his 40th birthday, he felt like he was dying.
“Tell Juliet and what’s her name to pump the gas. Let’s go into the station. I’ll try to explain.”
Juliet Runson and her friend Keely Sanchez emerged from the back seat. Juliet was well-versed into her parents’ facial expressions and body language. She took over the gas pump and asked Keely some innocuous question about their favorite teenage vampire television show.
Caleb and Shane walked inside the gas station’s tiny shopping area. He opened the door of the soft drink cooler and collapsed again. Pain singed his chest. He thought heart attack. Shane sat next to him, holding his hands.
“Tell me what is, baby! I love you!”
He felt better, regained strength, let go of her hands and pulled out four Coca-Colas.
“I don’t know. I think either you or Juliet should drive the rest of the way. I need to tell you about an email I got from a woman named Breann Lucos.”
“Just lay it out Breann, then we can be certifiably crazy and commit to rubber rooms,” the insult led to a revelation.
“Six babies over eleven days during the first part of September 1970 should’ve been stillborn. Instead, two misguided narcissists put robotics or something in those babies. Caleb, you and I were two of them. Now, I think, we’re going to expire, you know, die.”
It was a cool September in Central Park. A breeze bounced off the water but didn’t penetrate his balmy ample nervousness. As strange as her tale was, the person telling him was, technically, his sister. We had the same eyes, the same smirk, and neither us appear to be able to lie.
“Breann, we have to find the other four babies, or, people, and get some questions answered.” Her shoulders relaxed, her face found comfort, and she hugged me.
“Caleb, thanks for not running away. Forgive me if I get really weird; and don’t let go of you right now.”
Our moment together was interrupted by the competing vibrations of our cell phones.We started walking away from the park as she spoke to her boss, and I took a call from my wife.
“So, I’m being nosy. Tell me what happened, what’s she like,” Shane quizzed. Before I answered, I overheard Breann tell her New York Post editor caller, “I need some time off, at least a week. It’s personal, and very important.”
I answered Shane,
“she’s like me but, female. She worries a lot. She talks too much. You’ll probably love her, since you love me,”
Shane paused before responding, “I told you you were connected to her. When you get a moment alone, call me, and tell me everything, I love you forever.”
I smiled and said I love you back. Breann ended her call and acted as if everything was fine.
“come on Caleb, let’s go check out where we were born. That’s a start.” That was an understatement. We started telling the 40 years of our lives on the walk to Lenox Hill Hospital.
Hospitals are the same in New York as they are anywhere else in the world. They are a little busier, but equally as devoid of humanity. The woman “working” the information desk was not impressed with our inquiry about babies born 40 years ago.
“Ma’am, could you just tell us how to look up the birth records so we can get information on our doctors?”,
i asked in the little southern charm I possessed. While she muttered something about going downstairs, I saw Breann staring at a nurse as though she knew her. The nurse, tall, in her sixties, with brown and gray hair, turned toward Breann, smiled sheepishly then walked away quickly, as if she had to go somewhere right then, in a major hurry. Breann started following her, and I said thank you to the information grump and kept pursuit. Breann reached the nurse as she was getting on the elevator but by the time I got there, the doors had closedl I frustratingly pounded the elevator door frame. “Buddy, those doors open every couple of minutes. Be mad about the Mets blowing that game in Atlanta to the Braves last night,” said an older man with a Queens borough accent, who appeared to be a patient. He seemed quite congenial for native New Yorker so I just smiled and said “yeah, you’re right.” I didn’t want to reveal I was from Georgia, and thus, a Braves fan.
I called, then texted Breann and got nothing. The elevators were old, dense, and thus probably oblivious to cell phone coverage. I called my wife and updated her on what was going on. I made my way to the basement records office and started playing private detective. Walking down the stairs, I felt a pain in my chest. It was similar to what I had felt 11 years earlier when I had a heart attack. The pain stayed and I began to feel feverish. The sickness angered me, as I just didn’t need heart issues again, especially right now. A helpful clerk, who asked me four times if I was feeling alright, guided me to the 1970s record wall. I started flipping through August and September. Why did I have to be born in New York City? My parents were Georgians. My dad played minor league baseball for a year in the New York tri state area. How many babies could have been born on September 9, 1970 in an Atlanta hospital, 5, 10 at the most? For the record, 54 babies were born the same day I was in this ridiculously busy New York hospital. Breann’s conspiracy was starting to make sense. Of the 54 babies born that day, there no still borns. That’s just unusual. I was listed in the births, not the deaths. Although there was no doctor next to my name as far as attending physician. Either my mom did the work herself or I was so specifically heinous that no one wanted to put their name next to mine for credit? I reached into my pocket to get my phone. i was going to call my parents and gets some answers. They were always reticent to talk about my birth, like it was immaculate in a manger or something. My phone had no service. I was in the bowels of an old hospital. Santa Claus had better service at the North Pole than I did right then. I found Breann and the other four names. Their information was similar. No doctor listed, few details of the delivery, put down as births not stillborn and no information about the hospital stay. Were the 6 of us coincidentally victims of incompetent secretarial tasks , or was this how the doctors covered up their dubious work? I took some pictures of the records with my cell phone and went to find Breann or phone service.
As I walked upstairs into the main lobby I got service back and saw three texts from Breann, and a voicemail for an unidentified number. I checked the voicemail and heard “if you want to find what you’re looking for, research the names Connor Bulas and Anson Cluber. Give up talking to anyone at the hospital. They either know nothing or have been silenced.” The voice was genderless. It could have been an older woman or a middle aged man. It was deep, husky; obviously a smoker. That’s the best I could decipher. Then I checked the texts and saw one that read “meet me outside, this hospital sucks.” I walked into the front entrance of the hospital and saw Breann. She looked angry. Before I could tell her about the voicemail, she said “sorry I ran off. I recognized that battlel ax nurse. When I was here five years ago for migraine headaches, she worked my room. I remembered her saying something like “oh sweetie, you lived this long” or something like that. She thought I was sedated. She wouldn’t talk to me, acted like I was stalker, and called security on me. Dumb old woman was more worried about smoking a cigarette.” I was startled. “Did this woman have an ambiguously deep voice, like she could have sounded like a man on the phone?”, I wondered to Breann. “Yeah, she was Bea Arthur but with less personality.,” she answered. “Listen to this voice mail” I offered. Her eyes grew large and she played it again. “I gave her both of our business cards. She must have called you while secruity guards were walking after me. What a jagoff that woman was.” I laughed and assured her, “I took pictures on my cell phone, plus memorized some stuff I saw. I felt several pairs of eyes on me so I got what I could and went to find you,”. Breann looked determined but resigned to certain facts. “Are you hungry? We both have expense accounts, let’s use one. I know the perfect place.” she reasoned.
We hailed a cab. I called my wife and told her what was happening. By the time I finished with Shane, we were in front of Serendipity 3 in Manhattan. The pain in my chest was still there, my fever was low grade at best. Breann was fighting headaches, I could see it on her face and her hands were constantly touching her temples. As she paid the cab driver, I looked around 60th street. This was the 8th time I had been in New York, it seemed like home everytime. Breann caught my wistfulness, she smiled, and said “why do you think I live in this town? Every other place in the country seems second rate. Then again, I’m not married with 3 kids like you. Let’s get a good hot dog.” I wanted to know more about her physical condition. I had heart problems and a social anxiety disorder. I knew she fought anxiety and migraine headaches. All of our ailments seemed related. If there was serendipity to be had out of our bizarre new relationship, it would be figuring out what was physically wrong Breann and I, plus the other 4, and getting healthy for the first time in many years even if we didn’t answer the conspiracy questions. Maybe that’s why she took me to this restaurant.
Over hot dogs and frozen drinks, Breann and I compared medical histories, family backgrounds, and questions each of us had asked for 40 years. I still hadn’t processed her conspiracy theory regarding us being robots. In New York only two more days, I was more interested in learning about Breann, than doctors and parts. The pain in my chest had been there 11 years, she had been in my life for 24 hours. Seeing my eyes sleek over from information, Breann stopped talking. For two minutes, we sat in silence. Then, simultaneously, we said “let’s find the other four!”
We talked for 3 hours. The waitress became a waiter at some point. Neither liked Breann and I very much. I think our bill was 30 bucks, maybe a little more, but we were there for so long, we should have tipped them more than we did. I called my wife as we left the restaurant, “Hey, how are the kids?” She was in bed but not sleeping, her anxiousness was unlike her “they’re sound asleep. I let Esme sleep with me. I know you hate that, but we miss you too much to care about you being mad at us. Plus, she’s so warm, I don’t need sheets. Tell me everything.” she said. My chest hurt, I had little to no circulation in the fingers on either hand, and I needed ibuprofen. I responded with forced enthusiasm, “Breann and I are going to try and get in touch with the other four babies, or, well, you know, people. I have a light day in meetings tomorrow, so I can meet up with her after work, and we can do some private detective work. Shane, I think I may have finally answered the question you asked me the night before we got married. I think I know who I am. You have to have a hot dog from Serendipity. When we go to New York in the spring, this is our first stop.” Exasperated, my wife obliged my long day and said, “Ok. Go back to the hotel and get some sleep. You can’t solve this mystery tonight like Magnum P.I. or Scooby Doo. This feels right, sweetie. I’m giving you a lot of rope to hang yourself with, don’t make me wish this didn’t happen. I need to know more. I love you forever. Call me before you go to sleep.” I laughed, and hung up my cell phone. Breann was ending her call at the same time. She looked at me and stated, “I’m not sleeping tonight. I know you’re not. I’m guessing Shane said ditch the strange girl and go to bed. So that’s what we’re going to do. I’ll text you later, ok.” The fact she respected me told me something. I didn’t have the time or energy to figure out what, but I hugged her and got in the cab she hailed. “I’m going to walk over to bookstore across the street and hit their computer. You fire up your work laptop when you get back to your hotel. Maybe we can find Lena tonight or tomorrow. She lived in Austin, Texas as much as five years ago. Here,” she dropped 3 Excedrin pills in my left hand. “I know you need these as much as I do. From now on, both of us better have headache meds on hand or we slap each other silly for being stupid. See ya later, ok.” she said. I smiled and closed the cab door. As I rode down 60th street, I felt strangely content. The pain in my chest started to subside.
Lena Cosburn was too easy to find. Her mommy blog was seven years old. She was in contact with thousands of people through the web. I didn’t even bother contacting Breann. I assumed she had messaged Lena, talked her way into some agreement to a phone call and we were in with the Texan stay at home mom of two boys who wrote under the name Georgina Shush. I started working Lucas Bonner. All I had was a forwarding address of 57 Mount Pleasant Street, Colorado Springs, Colorado. That led to a listing of Air Force Academy baseball team players from 1988-1992. There he was, Lucas Bonner, in his only google appearance, an outfielder on the Falcon squad, hitting .289 with 4 homeruns and 26 rbi in 1992. Before I could call Breann, my cell phone vibrated. Shane was calling. “Hey you. I can’t stay up any more. I hope you’re not mad at me but I decided nosy Shane should make an appearance and I looked Breann up on the internet. She’s a really good writer. Not as good as you, but she really writes well,” she was rambling. “yeah, I know. I’ve read her stuff. Listen sweetheart, do you still talk that girl you worked with last year whose dad was a Colonel in the Air Force” I asked. “No, but her number is still in my phone and her roommate is scheduled for a nose job next week. Why?” As trusting as Shane was, telling her that a former glorified fourth outfielder for the Air Force in the early 90s might be my brother and I wanted to invade the guy’s privacy to tell him he was a robot who might die, just wasn’t going to work. “I just found something weird online that might connect me to a guy in the Air Force. It may be nothing, but when the girl comes in next week, ask her what your friend is up to. It may be cool for later. I love you, good night.”
It was rare for my phone to ring at 6am and it not be my wife or kids. Breann was a morning person like me. She rose at 5:30am every morning. I surmised that she sat by her phone until the clock hot 6 0 0 am. “Hey, so, Lena’s in. I talked to her online for almost two hours. I’m supposed to talk to her over the phone around 10am eastern after she takes her kids to school. Did you see her blog? I learned more about childhood dietary habits than I ever knew existed. I’m sure most of it is crap, but still, the woman is thorough. She’s gotta be one of us. Lena has a heart murmur, circulatory problems, and migraines like me. How do you like you eggs?” I was starting to regret ever accepting her twitter follow, and defintely rethinking meeting her in Central Park. “Over easy, but never before 8am. I have a 9am work meeting at One Plaza,” I tried to offer an excuse to not see her. “Can you be ready in 30 minutes? We can do breakfast and I can get you to the Plaza by 8. We need to talk. I think we can get some stuff done today, even while you earn a paycheck.” I wanted to say no. For some reason, something deeper than the sleep in my eyes, I said “pick me up in the lobby at 6:30, you’re buying. Oh, and Lucas Bonner had an on base percentage of .331 his senoir year for the Air Force Falcons. He has to be in. He drew too many walks for a normal person.” She laughed and I rolled out of the hotel bed to take a shower.
Walking into the Manhattan Diner, something about Breann registered that I hadn’t paid any attention. She was flirting with the waitress. The brown eyes, the anxiousness, the incessant talking, sharp dressing, and type A personality weren’t the only things we held in common. We also liked blondes. Around 30 years old, curvy, blue eyed, dirty blonde curly tressed with a loud laugh, Breann’s conversation partner became more professional when I walked to the booth. Breann introduced me and then my order was taken. Breann looked desperate to get through the awkwardness. “So, um, how are Shane and the girls,” she asked slyly. “Mean and grumpy, but I could hear their pretty through the phone. How’s the girl bringing my eggs?” I answered mischeviously. She wanted to open up and tell me something that really wasn’t any of my business. Her shoulders tightened, she bit her bottom lip, and said “um, so guess who Lena Cosburn is in an internet chat room group on scrapbooking with?” I was hoping she’d say Lucas Bonner so I had less work to do before going into my real job, but I had a feeling he wasn’t into putting laminated pages into notebooks. “Lindsay Lohan,” I offered sarcastically. “No, but if she was we’d know where to get good coke. Clare Bunson, born in New York City at Lenox Hill Hospital on September 6, 1970. She sent me an email this morning. Lena may handle Clare for us. Thank goodness. Imagine having to get into a scrapbooking chatroom just to drop, a hey, you might be my robot sister and we need to figure out how to stay alive before our bodies blow up or our batteries die or something.” Breann handled the stress the same way I did, with sarcasm and inappropriate remarks. I didn’t respond. I was hungry, but I wasn’t interested in our tasks. I just wanted to go home, introduce Breann to my wife and kids, and give her the family she deserved. Unmarried, little to no family left and possibly childless for the rest of her life, I was concerned. I slid some notes I had taken on Lucas Bonner across the table and said “let’s take an hour off from this and get to know each other. Maybe we can get to where we need to go with more personal information about each other.” She smiled, the blonde delivered our eggs, bacon, and toast. Then Breann told me a story.
“My family was a little like yours. Your dad gave up baseball to raise you and your sister. My dad gave up his art gallery job in the city when I was 3 months old. He, my mom, and I moved out to Orange, New Jersey. My dad took a job selling construction supplies, and my mom answered phones at an insurance office. My sister was born three years later and my parents decided they had to have a big house. We moved into this old Victorian style place when I was 4. By then, my parents had given birth to my little sister, Bailey. She wasn’t even walking when we moved in. The house was built in the 1950s, it was huge but run down. My parents spent years fixing it up. From the street it looked gorgeous. When I was little I swore there were angels lining the house like something out of an old movie. Kids loved coming over and playing in the yard. The thing is, inside, it was kind of depressing. My dad had a talent for carpentry and my mom was a good housekeeper but nothing was ever finished. The place was always cluttered. No matter how much we cleaned, there was always some undone project. We almost never had people come inside. When I convinced a friend to come over and see the place from inside, they usually said something like “this isn’t what I expected”, which I took as “this place is kind of screwed up and so are you”. It’s like the house came to symbolize my entire life. People thinking one thing about me when the opposite was true.”
Enthralled with the window into her childhood, I asked, “what happened to the house?”
Breann’s face grew small. Her lips pursed and she bit her bottom lip in nervousness. “My mom and dad grew apart. he was an artist meant to live in New York, not a suburban dad who installed wall trim and planted shrubs. My mom was more simple. She loved being a mom. She loved that damn house. I guess I was more like my dad. I grew to resent the place like he obviously did.”
I was hearing something I shouldn’t, at least not this quickly in our friendship. I smiled and gave her look like she could trust me. I didn’t have to do that. She rubbed her temples and kept going.
“My dad left when I was 16. I was a junior in high school. For whatever reason, well, maybe because I’m robot (she chuckled and smiled wickedly) or whatever we are, I handled it all well. I even supported my mom when she took the house from him. My sister was younger, like 13, I think, and much more emotional. She thought everything about about her all the time. She got into drugs when I was senior. Never got out of them. My mom met this guy she worked with like a year after my dad left, right before I started college. While my sister and I were visiting my dad in the city, my mom eloped. Her new husband had an even bigger, more imposing looking Victorian style house about 10 miles away. I’ll never forget helping my mom and sister move out of the old house. My sister and I used to call the place The House of Irony. Beautiful on the outside but damaged on the inside. My sister, melodramatic 24/7 said, as we put the last boxes into my step dad’s truck, “The House Of Irony is dead. All hail The House of What It Is Actually Is, Despair!” She grinned oddly, gripped her fork, and spit, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Alanis Morrisette.”
I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. That made Breann laugh. As we finished our breakfast, I told her about growing up in Georgia and meeting my wife. The conversation was a lot easier that the eggs.
Breann and I shared a cab over to the Plaza. As I exited the car, she called out ”I’m off from work. I’ll contact Lena, Clare, and research Lucas, then text bomb your phone.” As I walked through the glass revolving door, a coworker of mine who thinks he’s my friend, cuffs me in the back of the head with his right hand. “Caleb Runson, you have a girlfriend!” he announced indiscreetly. “No, she’s, well, we’re related. She’s family.” It was the first time I had said it aloud. My headache disappeared and my chest relaxed. I felt really good.
The third floor was surprisingly calm. It appeared to be staging and recovery rooms for surgeries and other procedures. Exam room 3 was around the corner from the elevator, seemingly hidden away from the other rooms. As I walked in, I heard the nurse’s voice say, “go into the bathroom, take off your shirt, I’ll be there in in a minute.” I rolled my eyes and thought little of her command. We needed to have a conversation, not a weird restroom encounter. “I don’t go that far on the first date, can we just talk first?” She didn’t respond. The bathroom seemed creepy so I stayed in the corner next to the faded red reclining chair so as not to be seen from the hallway. She appeared, in shadow, pushing an exam cart. “Fine, but I need to examine you, having your shirt off would help,” she insisted. Extending my hand and faking a big smile, I replied, “Hi, I’m Caleb. I understand you met my, uh, friend I guess, yesterday. She’s a lot to take the first time. Maybe you and I can be less confrontational.”
With green eyes, a hard face of no makeup or expression, and graying red hair pulled back into an air tight bun, the nurse looked cliche. Breann calling her a battleax was spot on. “I’m not willing to give my livelihood or my life for you or your sister. I am offering to examine you and tell you what to expect over the next few weeks or months,” she deadpanned. Why would she lose her life helping me? She called Breann my sister, there’s obvious something to all this, I thought. This nurse appeared to have seen it all and not liked it much. “If I show you mine, will you tell me how to find the others?” I asked. She shook her head in agreeance and pointed at my t-shirt. I pulled it off as well as my hat and leaned against the exam table.
She took my blood pressure, checked my temperature, then investigated my chest, neck, and head. Finally she stated, “you have a temperature of 100. Your heartbeat is faster than normal, and you’ve likely had a cardiac arrest in the last 24 hours. You need to find those doctors. If they don’t make some adjustments, you and the others won’t live long.” Every ex I’d known possessed better bedside manner. Won’t live long? After a 5 minute checkup? She could see the bewilderment building, and said, “I didn’t deliver you. I was there for babies 1-3.” That meant she oversaw the births of Bruce, Clare, and Lucas. Before I could ask a question she dropped, “all six of you were stillborn or in heart failure when you were taken from your mothers. Each of you were implanted with a robotic heart, and that means you have artificial synapses to your nervous system, brain stem, and different metals throughout your valves, and respiratory lines. Those metals are like poison. As your heart wears down, the poison becomes more pronounced. That’s all I know from a medical view.”
Putting my shirt on slowly, my exasperation was matched only by my stammering, “wha, how, ok, well, I, no nurses are on the charts. Neither are Bulas or Cluber. In fact, I can’t find anything on them.” She rubs her mouth. I can see the nicotine stains on her fingers and the tops of her teeth, when she grimaces and says, “you were an experiment. Doctors Bulas and Cluber weren’t residents here. They were around this hospital for a month or two doing research and some surgeries. I was working doubles the first few days of September. I was off when you and the other two were born. There’s a clinic at New York University that will have records from the 1970s when Connor Bulas was running it. You need to look up Los Angeles, California heart specialists associated with cedars Sinai Hospital. The last I heard, four years ago, Anson Cluber was privileged through there. He’s well known in the cardiologist community. Also, I know you are dying slowly. It’s a scientific wonder that you all lasted 40 years. Those hearts are like batteries. Inside of you is a red light that will die out. Chest pains, breathing problems, headaches, dizziness and fever are what you all should watch for. You need to tell the other five of their conditions. If you feel fever, it’s a warning. I have to go.”
I followed her outside into the hall but she refuses to even acknowledge me. I reached for her arm but see two nurses coming our way. I turned around and walked towards the elevator. I’m in enough trouble. This woman, irascible she may be; helped me. I took the elevator down to the lobby, exited the automatic doors, walked into the parking lot, and called Breann. She answered on the first ring, and I acerbically said, “Dead man walking, we need to drink, talk, then drink some more.”
I’d believed music saved since I heard the Beatles at 5 years old. Tonight, I needed it to provide a voice to tell Breann there was a chance I wouldn’t dance at my daughters weddings. I walked into the Bowery Ballroom rock club and sat on a stool as if it were giving me oxygen. The song Voices Carry by Til Tuesday played. To a younger, prettier, tattooed, Chrissie Hynde lookalike tending bar, I said ”whiskey and water.” I turned around and saw guy in his early 20s wearing eyeliner, holding a guitar case that read, Hope Springs A Turtle.
I couldn’t speak until my second whiskey and water. I just stared into my glass as Breann told me about Lena and Clare’s medical issues, personal details, and getting a lead on Lucas Bonner living in Las Vegas, Nevada.
She talked nonstop for almost 10 minutes. Seeing my blank face, Breann stopped mid sentence and said plainly,
“Caleb, I know music and liquor is where you are right now, but you head back to Georgia tomorrow. Whatever is on your mind needs to be on mine. Just say it.”
I took the red straw from her jack and coke and twirled it in my fingers. The syrupy plastic feel made me think of my kids fingers after they ate pancakes and tried to hug me.
“We’re going to die without new hearts, Breann. I ran into that nurse. She told me she was there when the first three were born. She knows what we are. Without one of those doctors fixing us, it’s over. I don’t feel like investigating. I don’t feel like googling strangers. I don’t care about Lena in Texas, Clare in Arizona or Lucas in Las Vegas right now. I want to drink until I’m numb. Then later, we’ll eat something greasy to soak up this booze and I’ll go home and tell my wife we have to call our insurance agent and make some changes.”
Breann wasn’t a person who felt sorry for herself. She leaned over, put her hands on my face and said slowly, “I just found you. I’m not going to lose you. You sure as hell aren’t getting rid of me. We find these doctors, get new parts, and fight through this. Tell Shane whatever you want. But, know this, in a week or so, we will know everything about the evil assholes who made us like this. Now, drink. I’ve crawled home from here before. It’ll be a blast to have someone do it with.”
Memories became lost in the pouring of more drinks After the fourth or maybe fifth, things happened in blurs. The band was terrible, I remember. They wanted to be Smashing Pumpkins but they couldn’t play very well. Breann got familiar with the bass player’s girlfriend. I pushed and shoved someone with the band. I’m sure I looked ridiculous doing it all 15 years older than most people around me.
At some point it began raining. We got caught in the street waiting for a cab, and the rain fell over me in sheets, sobering me a little. I felt like I was drowning in information, illness, and indecision. How do I swim through this wave of change washing over my life? At some point, Breann and I sat down on the curb waiting on the cab and the wet became comforting.
I woke to a pain in my chest and a cold sweat. It was still dark. I stumbled into the bathroom, turned on the light, and looked into the mirror. Old bloodshot brown eyes judged me. The pain increased. I felt a deadness in my hands. I reached for my toothbrush and could not get it into my grasp. I dropped to my right knee and tried to maintain a steady breath. Then I began to pray….”Please God, just give me a little longer. Let me make this right with my family, the people who love me, God. I know I don’t deserve it, but they do.” The pain dissipated. Feeling came back slowly to my hands and fingers. I was still sweating. I found my phone in the pocket of my jeans from the night before and texted Breann, “Come and get me. Let’s find these people and get our lives back.”
I looked at the corner of my phone. It was 6:30 am. I made it to another day.
Exhausted by the events in New York, I walked lifelessly through the Atlanta airport. I wanted to bring Breann with me but she was in New Jersey speaking with her mother. I wasn’t sure I could be in the same room with my parents. They raised me to believe that hiding information was lying.
By the luggage carousel, a boy; maybe 4 years old, played with a toy robot that talked when you pressed it’s chest. The toy wouldn’t talk. “Mama, this robot is broken!” he yelled. I shook my head muttering to myself bitterly, “damn right it is.”
When you feel like your life is a lie, you embrace brutal honesty. That’s the philosophy I adopted walking the 6 steps into my house. I hugged three girls. The teenager, Juliet, even gave me decent squeeze. The kiss I placed on Shane’s lips let her know a lot. It shaved an hour off our discussion later. I gave my daughters their cliche New York gifts, t-shirt’s with I Heart NY and miniature Statue Of Liberty figurines, then walked my wife into the bedroom and locked the door.
“We’re moving to New York, aren’t we?” Shane asked, completely misreading the situation.
I laughed awkwardly and just began talking. Everything, from meeting Breann, to the nurse, to my heart, to poisonous metals slowly killing me. Shane knew if she didn’t stop crying, the kids would be upset. So we just hugged each other a lot until Juliet, Kat, and Esme went to bed. I showed Shane the texts and emails from Breann. The progress we had made in corresponding with the others seemed to comfort my wife.
My chest hurt a lot. The headache was painful, but I didn’t want to complain in front of my wife at the risk of making her more upset.. As we got ready to sleep, Shane pushed herself close to me and whispered in my ear, “I’m not ready to lose you. I want you to spend every spare minute finding a way to get these doctors to fix you. Whatever it takes, do it. We aren’t ready to lose you.” We held each other for a while then Shane said “You feel really warm, feverish actually. You should work from home tomorrow, you need rest.” We fell asleep uncertain.
A fierce coldness consumed my body. I opened my eyes and wondered had I walked in my sleep, outside. I had not. Under a sheet, a bedspread and an afghan I was freezing. Not wanting to wake the warm body next to me, I arose and made my way into the bathroom. I stared at the pale face in the mirror. Remembering the words “if you feel fever, it’s a warning.” I opened a drawer and found a pair of scissors. Not wanting to wake her I didn’t turn the hot water on, I just made an incision in the left part of my chest. I cut at the flesh until I felt an obstruction. The blood was significant. I was risking bleeding out. It took two towels to clean away enough blood to see what I was supposed to see. It was metal. Then I saw a red light reflected off the metal carriage. Standing before the mirror naked, I saw what I was for the first time in my 40 years. Part something, part something else, but definitely not what I am supposed to be.
“Baby, you ok?” I felt warm arms and chest wrapped around my freezing back and shoulders. I was awake but back in bed. I threw the covers off and anxiously investigated my body. Shane stared incredulousy at me and asked “are you having a bad dream or are you losing your mind?”
Nothing is there. No blood, no metal carriage, no red light, just me, flesh and bone. It must have been a dream, or a warning. The fever remained.
I drove downtown to a small private hospital to meet the only doctor I knew. The receptionist led me to an exam room.
The tall, blonde pony-tailed physician walked in and said,
“Caleb Runson, you devilish little imp. Had I known you’d walk back into my life, I wouldn’t have gotten married.”
My new doctor, Ava Pennington was also my girlfriend of 3 years when I was in college.
After x-rays, a physical, blood work, and awkward flirtatious catch-up conversation; she confirmed everything.
Struggling to speak, Ava whispered,
“Dr. Anson Cluber is a reknown heart surgeon, I called his office.”
The only way around the awkwardness was to treat Ava like a business partner. I saw the way she looked at me, but the lines around our 40 year old eyes meant something. That something wasn’t reanimating a 15 year old relationship.
“What do you know about Anson Cluber?” I asked.
A streak of grey invaded her blonde hair when she ran her pale, manicured left hand over her bangs and sighed uncomfortably.
“I only know him by reputation. He’s a rock star in the cardiac medicine field. Anson Cluber pretty much invented heart nanosurgery, you know, robotics. Supposedly he created robotic heart surgery techniques with this weird Doctor named Connor Bulas. The rumor is Bulas makes bio-engineered food crops in Montana or South Dakota or somewhere else. Dr. Cluber has had an amazing career as a surgeon. When I was in medical school I was selected watch him perform surgery at Georgetown Medical Center, near Washington D.C. It was incredible. Remember when we saw The Rolling Stones in ’94? I saw a cool concert by a cool band. You were in church, having a religious experience. It was like that with Dr. Cluber that day. He made a double bypass look like Keith Richards playing Sympathy For The Devil.”
I had to give Ava credit, her analogy was perfect. Hearing her compliment Cluber made Sympathy For The Devil play in my head.
“How do you have his office number, Ava?”
She fidgeted in her round swivel chair, almost breaking the black seat as she reached for her chart and tried to think of an answer.
“Well, I know a doctor that interns at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. He idolizes Dr. Cluber. I guess you could say we both idolize him. When my friend got a job at that hospital I made him give me the number in case something ever came up there. Then I got married a few years ago and some opportunities became unattainable.
From the disappointment in her voice, I realized Ava was still the same person she was when we dated. She was always looking for an advantage with people and situations. I decided to go ahead and let her into my problem.
“Help me, Ava. Be my doctor. We can figure out a way to get Cluber to fix my heart. Ava, I need for you to meet my, friend. I think she may be my sister. Her name is Breann Lucos. She has the same condition I do. In fact, Cluber or Bulas or both, delivered us as babies, two days apart. I think they gave us these robot parts. If I get her to come down from New York, will you treat her too?”
Ava clenched her face. Lines of stress filled her jaws and I could see her move her shoulders away from me for the first time since I had been in her office. She was as insufferably selfish as she was in her mid twenties.
“Caleb, we need to focus on you. We can get a consult for your friend. The more eyes on this the better, right? New York? Good God, Caleb, there are amazing doctors there.”
The irony of Ava helping people by being a physician wasn’t lost on me. She was all about Ava all the time.
“No, I think we have to keep this a tight circle. We don’t know if Cluber and Bulas are keen on helping us. They could have done these opreations without my parents’ consent. I mean, I had a heart attack eleven years ago, struggled with social anxiety disorder, and blinding headaches, yet, until 4 days ago, I had never heard their names. Now, I’m told I’m dying? I think you should engage Cluber but not use my name. Let him figure out who I am, and see what he does.”
Ava, dropped her defensive stance and looked into my eyes.
“Caleb, of course I’ll help you. There’s a lot of water under our bridge. I know that sounds cliche. Finding out you almost died while hanging with former friends of ours at a Braves basbeall game hurt. We’re exes, not enemies. I missed you. I worried about you. I’ll meet your New York girl. But, if I’m going to be your doctor and your friend, I have to do it my way. You owe me that for how things ended with us.”
I owed her nothing. The last thing I remember about our relationship her drunkenly kissing some medical school wannabe in her class at a bar in front of all of our friends and throwing a beer mug at me when I broke up with her.
As I buttoned my shirt, Ava put her left hand on my right arm. I looked down at my wedding ring, swallowed hard and said,
“I’ll put Breann Lucos in touch with you today. Please help her. I have to make some phone calls. I’ll get back with you in a day or two. Let me know what Cluber’s office has to say.”
She smiled broadly at me as I walked out of the room, I returned it with a smirk. I felt pain shoot through my chest. I knew getting involed with Ava and possibly Anson Cluber, was wrong. I had to dance with the devil if I was going to live.
Freshly cut grass jumped on my sneakers as I entered the City Courthouse grounds. A commercial landscaping crew was finishing work. The yellow caution tape would keep most people away, but I had privilege. I tried to get the attention of the grass cutter by waving my hand if front of him. He turned off the mower.
“Hey Van. Where’s dad?”
Van Munroe, my dad’s business partner for 27 years, had known me all my life.
“Hayyeb Caleb! Get a rake and do some real work like you used to. I’ll buy ya a co cola when we’re done.”
“I’m good, Van Man. You don’t have any left handed rakes. I looked. I really need to talk to your lazy partner. I know he’s around, I saw his truck next door.”
Van took off his University of Georgia Southern baseball cap, wiped his sweat glazed bald head and sighed.
“He’s around the side of the courthouse talking to that lawyer friend of his. He seems preoccupied today. Something’s up. I just don’t wanna know, you know?”
My dad usually wasn’t about secrets. With the revelations about my birth and medical conditions combined with his peculiarity today, I felt scared.
I walked a few hundred feet through the newly layed rock and sand lining the manicured estate. A pebble got caught in my shoe near the cuff of my jeans. I stopped to remove it, when my dad spoke.
“Hey son! How was New York? Did you come to help? Van and I are finishing the Courthouse area ourselves, then heading over to the Courthouse cafeteria.”
The dumb grin gave him away. He was expecting me.
“We need to talk pop, alone. New York was crazy, I have a feeling you know why. Tell me about September 9th, 1970. Try to be thorough this time.”
Whenever my dad was stressed or uncomfortable he stammered, rubbed his temples, and started talking baseball.
“The Yankees were out of town while you were there, huh? Guess you watched the Braves on the hotel tv. Derek Lowe pitched good. Brian McCann had 3 doubles day before yesterday.”
Fed up and exhausted, I just decided to kick the respect I had for my father aside and get to the point. I was dying to know, literally.
“Tell me about the day I was born, dad. It’s important! Tell me about Anson Cluber and Connor Bulas!”
My anger was building, my fever was spiking while my dad was sweating. It was a hot day.
“Caleb, it’s all really complicated. Your mom said she got a phone call from her doctor. I know you have been asking questions. Let’s go to the courthouse cafeteria. I’m starving. You look weak.”
We walked inside, got some sandwiches and sat down at the brown metal tables. I looked at a man I admired every day of my life. He worked so hard to help me get into college. He raised me and my two sisters lovingly. Now, I saw someone with a weight on him. He deserved a velvet glove, not the iron fist I had inside me.
“Dad, do you know Spencer Johnson?”
He looked me blankly then tried to make a joke.
“Who did he play for?”
I was becoming irritated again.
“He’s not a ball player, he’s an author. He wrote self help books. I don’t read them because self help books are crap, but you know the book Gramma has on her bathroom shelf, Who Moved My Cheese?”
My dad laughed.
“Yeah. I know that one. I laugh at that every time I’m over there.”
I smirked and thought briefly about my daughters asking my Grandmother why she had a book about Mickey Mouse in her potty.
“Yeah me too. Look, Spencer Johnson has this quote. ‘Integrity is telling myself the truth. And honesty is telling the truth to other people’ . Right now, I need for you tell me what happened when mom had me. I found out some things in New York that don’t match the story you guys told me growing up. I’m not judging you. I’m trying to save my life and the lives of others.”
The shock on my dad’s face was impressive. He seemed to be floored by my words. He rubbed his forehead and tried to find the words.
“Your life, son? What’s wrong? It’s your heart isn’t it?”
I nodded in agreement.
“It was a confusing experience, Caleb. Your mom got sick in the hospital. Her blood pressure shot up, your heart stopped beating. Then they delivered you.”
He began to tear up. I did to. I put my right hand on his left hand and squeezed tightly.
“This one doctor, Bulas, the hippie one. He said they could save you, but you’d need surgery. We signed whatever paper work they put in front of us and the other doctor, Cluber. He was a slick guy, very smooth and professional. He kind of took over. Dr. Cluber took you into an operating room. A couple of hours later they brought you to us room. They said you’d need doctors appointments two or three times a year til you were a teenager or more.”
My dad was crying. Few things made me weep more than seeing my dad in emotional tumult.
“I love you dad. This isn’t about me being mad at you. But the heart that Cluber and Bulas put in me is dying. There are at least five other people that were given operations. One of them is a girl, born a couple of days later. Her name is Breann Lucos. She’s like a female version of me. I wouldn’t surprised if we had the same parts, like robots, but even weirder. We may even share DNA or something. I need all the information on Bulas and Cluber and anyone else that talked with you and mom.”
My dad wiped his eyes and grabbed my right arm tightly.
“How long does your heart have, Caleb. How much time?”
I pushed my tray with my turkey sandwich and chips over to him and rose to my feet.
“Give my food to Van. I don’t know how much time, dad. But I need you to help me as soon as you get home today. I may be leaving for New York soon. It would be nice to have all the facts.”
My dad hugged me.
“I’m sorry son. We we were so…”
I didn’t let him finish. He didn’t have to to. I knew why he did it, and I was alright, for now.
Weaving through traffic, I almost hit a dumptruck. I was sweating profusely. My image in my mirror was sickly. The distance from the courthouse to the hospital was 2 miles. I was halfway there. I texted her.
“Meet me in the emergency room, I need you”.
I parked, jumped from my SUV, and tried to run to the entrance.
The next thing I saw was Ava standing over me. She had control of the room.
“Everyone thinks you’re fluish and panic attacked, but I’m monitoring your heart. I’m waiting on a call from Dr. Cluber’s office to proceed. You’re mine for now.”
My eyes were bleary but I could make out the time on the round wooden clock over Ava’s left shoulder. My kids would be home from school in less than thirty minutes. There was no i.v. in either of my arms and the oxygen tank wasn’t being used. I felt dizzy, possibly drugged. Ava put my keys and cell phone in her jacket pocket and picked up her stethoscope.
“Caleb, rest would do wonders for you right now. They’ll call soon. Then I’ll take great care of you.”
She seemed strange but comforting. I must have been drugged. I didn’t feel like leaving the room even with her presence.
“My kids will be home soon, Ava. I’m off from work, so they’re expecting me.”
Ava patted the left pocket of her teal blazer, grimaced, then relaxed her broad shoulders and put her right hand on my chest.
“I took care of that for you. I texted your teenage daughter. I told her you were working. She texted back that she’d tell your wife. I even called her sweetheart. I guessed right on that one. You still call every woman you know sweetheart. I got a smiley face for that.”
I was too dizzy and tired to be creeped out. Ava hadn’t changed much; always in control. The song Bleed It Out by Linkin Park started playing. It stopped when Ava answered her cell phone. She walked toward the door and talked softy. I couldn’t hear her conversation. Then I noticed a small, plastic contraption attached to my ribs. Pain shot through my waist and chest when I tried to get off the table. Ava saw me and walked toward me, then stiff armed me back where I was laying. She put up her left index finger and and scowled at me. I tried to remove the tiny machine attached to my side as the pain was unbearable. My skin began to rip and I screamed,
“Ava, what the hell is this thing?”
When I awoke, I was in Ava’s car. I opened my eyes and saw the grey roof of a BMW. The seat belt was cutting into the side of my ribcage where the machine was and blood was staining my shirt. Ava reached over with her right hand and rubbed my chest.
“Please be okay, Caleb. I’m taking us to the airport. I can explain more once we get on the plane.”
I was fuming with anger and reeling from the pain on my side, head, and chest.
“You’ll explain everything now or I’ll put this car in a ditch and we’ll both need a doctor!”
Ava breathed in deeply and pulled over to a shoulder in the road. I had found the seat adustment and was sitting straight. From what I could recognize, we were in downtown Atlanta, maybe 10 miles from the airport.
“Caleb, that’s a geiger-muller counter on your abdomen. It’s measuring metalllics and other foreign objects in your body and thus diagnosing how much poison or radiation you have inside of you due to the side effects of the heart you have implanted. There’s damage to your nervous system too. I don’t know how much. We have to get to New York tonight. There’s a doctor there, Oliver Wicks, that can buy you some time until we can get through to Dr. Cluber. We’ll buy you a new shirt and overnight stuff when we get to the airport”
Stunned and still dizzy, I just want to get my bearings and try to figure out how to make the most of this situation. I look at the console and see it’s 3:15pm. My kids are home.
“I checked plane flights to New York earlier today. I know there’s a 4:35pm. I assume that’s the one we’re taking. We need to get there, start driving.
We’re silent for a few minutes and I feel my cell phone in her jacket pocket. I put my hand in and take it out. She doesn’t stop me.
“Text them, Caleb. If you call them, they’ll know you’re sedated and they’ll worry. Tell them you’re working or tell them something else. Breann Lucos called and texted. I answered her and she’s meeting us at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York at 7:00pm tonight. I’ll make sure she’s taken care of too. You have my word. But we need to start getting smart about things. This is Anson Cluber and if he is still around, Connor Bulas’ game. We have to play by their rules or I’ll lose you and you’ll lose Breann and others. Everything’s riding on this trip to see Wicks. Watching your kids grow up, holidays with the family, seeing the Braves win a World Series; none of it is possible if you don’t go along with me right now. I’ll take care of you, okay, Caleb?”
She stares at me with her dark blue eyes. I know she’s keeping something from me. She always was.
I sent a text to my wife that also went to Breann, accidently.
“I’m really sick. I’ll explain more later. Trust me, I love you.”
I dropped the phone in my lap in exhaustion. I looked at Ava and she gripped the steering wheel until her knuckles were white. At the same time, we seemed numb.
My loopy state, lack of luggage, and blood stained shirt made me suspicious. I stayed outside in the parking deck while Ava went inside the airport and bought clothes and sundry items. I took the last 3 pain relievers, then texted Breann updates.
I took off my shirt and she bathed the wound from the geiger-muller counter with iodine solution while I cringed.
“Sorry about that. So we’re in this thing together the right way, Caleb?”
I rolled my eyes and looked at a police car a hundred feet away.
“Ava, there’s no right way to do this.”
Breann held my right hand with her left and leaned into me with most of her body weight.
“This migraine is horrible, Caleb. I need to sit down.”
The exam room was brightly lit. Breann winced.
“Ava, can we dim the lights and get her something to lay down on. Whatever you’re going to do to us, do it to her first.”
Ava turned off the lights to the front part of the room and found a large, black, desk chair. I sat Breann down. I could feel her heart beating as I held her still.
“Ava, tell us what’s going on.”
From a hermetically sealed container that looked like fancy tupperware. Dr. Oliver Wicks, removed a small, oval grey object that looked like a bullet. Then turned toward us.
“This is a magnet. Magnetic therapy is used on mostly on animals. There’s been some success with humans that have joint problems like arthritis but never with something like metallic poisoning. In theory, this magnet will draw the metals from your heart area, central nervous system, and brain stem into one pool, thus reducing the radiation effects until we can, well, see, if a new heart can be transplanted.”
Ava was staring at Wicks, as if to telling him to shut up with her eyes, and get his stuff done. Wicks stopped talking. Ava had scrubbed her hands and arms and was putting on surgical gloves. Two scalpels were next to Wicks on the stainless steel table. Ava stood between Wicks and I and took over the conversation.
“Breann, Caleb, I’m going to make an incision. As long as the magnet is placed away from your heart area and above your waist the metals sould find their way to the it. You can choose where we put the magnet, for scarring purposes. I suggest one of your shoulders. There’s plenty of tissue and muscle to take a cut.”
Breann rubbed her temples and looked up at Ava intently. She mustering strength.
“How do you know this will work? I mean, these things could cause infections or our bodies could reject them, right?”
Ava hated being questioned. She picked up the first scalpel.
“You have a choice, Breann. Take the magnet and buy yourself some time and health or have that headache and that heart palpatation that’s slowly kill you. As I told, Caleb, I am your your only hope right now.”
Breann wasn’t going to be controlled. She looked ready to fight until the magnet was put in her body.
“I want to know that Dr. Anson Cluber is going to help me, Caleb, and the other four. Band aids are temporary. I want something permanent. I also want it in writing.”
I had seen the look on Ava’s face before. We were 23 years old, at a wedding together, and my drunk cousin, Helena, told Ava what she really thought of her. Instead of slapping Breann, like she did to Helena, she looked at Wicks’ and nodded to him. Wicks removed a zip drive from his sports coat and walked over to Breann.
“Inside of there are emails and phone calls between Oliver, myself, and Anson Cluber setting up yours, Caleb’s, and your friends Lena and Clare’s heart surgeries for the first of the year. Of course that depends on how sick each of your hearts are in January or February. We’ll need the three months or more to get these magnets to work, centralize the metals, and set up other logistics. The deal is, Oliver and I are yours and Caleb’s doctors. Lena Cosburn and Clare Bunsen are being set up with a another doctor in Dallas.”
Breann wasn’t through. She had found comfort in poking Ava with a stick.
“You’ve been watching us, haven’t you, you stalker. Lena told me she had some anonymous internet attention since I started talking to her. You and your boy Oliver Wicks want in on the guinea pig robot babies, don’t you.”
The storm inside Ava was swirling. She gripped the scalpel forcefully, and sat down in front of Breann.
“Show me where you want the magnet or I’ll put somewhere where you won’t ever be able to wear a bikini. Not that you should anyway.”
Breann smiled and leaned back in the chair.
“Just tell me I’m right Dr. Ava. You looked up your ex boyfriend, got him to call you. Then tracked me and Lena and Clare over the computer. Now, you want your name in the New England Journal of Medicine or your own Dr. Blondie show on the E! channel.”
Ava breathed in and curled her dry, pinkish lips. The scalpel was making it’s way toward Breann’s throat.
“If you shut up, I’ll make a vertical incision in your unfortunate small B-Cup bra line. That should be really easy for you to cover.”
Breann smiled and nodded okay to Ava. Breann unbottoned her her purple blouse, and moved her white bra strap to the side.
“Caleb called me. He always does when he needs me. Right, Caleb?”
I ignored her and shrugged at Wicks, who was preparing to put the magnet inside Breann’s shoulder.
“Breann, you need a doctor, locally, that can keep a secret, have your best interests and his close to the vest. If it were up to me, you’d rot with your migraines and decaying heart. But, to Caleb, who really matters here, you’re important. So I called Oliver. He’s a very good physician. Don’t worry, you don’t have to say thank you.”
Wicks moved over to Breann and implanted the oval magnet inside her shoulder. I couldn’t see much so I talked Breann through it.
“It is good for you Breann? You’re like the six hundred dollar woman now.”
She laughed then cringed in pain.
“It’s not bad. The magnet is really warm. It feels like it’s absorbing through my skin down to my bones.”
Wicks and Ava looked concerned but said nothing as he moved away from Ava and Ava began stitching the incision.
“You’re next Caleb. We’ll remove the counter from your side then give you the magnet.”
I took Wicks’ chair from him. Then sat next to Breann as Wicks finished stitching her.
Breann smiled at me and closed her eyes to handle her pain.
“You can cut me anywhere, Ava. Chicks dig scars.”
I looked straight ahead as Wicks clumsily removed the counter from my left side. Ava was inches from my face as her hands were ready cut my right shoulder.
“I’ll put this near the cut you got on my family farm’s barbed wire fence. We had fun stitching that one.”
The irony of my scars was lost on Ava. I looked into her mischievious eyes and smiled. Breann stared at me, disapprovingly. The magnet’s intense warmth sent pain through me. I shut my eyes.
“Done, Caleb. Need to get you lying down.”
Ava’s whisper reopened my eyes. We were alone.
Pain spread throughout my chest and shoulders. I was so dizzy that I fell back in the chair when I tried to check on Breann. Ava’s long, straight blonde hair fell around me as I was straddled while she checked my eyes with a pen light. Her smell was more sophisticated than when we were together.
“Caleb, I need to lay you down on the exam table. You have 40 on me so hold my arms as tightly as you can. The dizziness will subside in a few minutes. Breann’s already improving.”
The table was cold and hard. My vision cleared. Ava sat next to me and texted.
“Oliver is looking over Breann in a room down the hall. You both kind of blacked out. Probably a reaction to the magnet. It’s centralizing the metal poisoning and acting for or against the other metals parts inside of you. Once you get more balanced we’ll go to the hotel and rest.”
I thought about Shane, the girls, my job. Tomorrow was Friday, I could get off, but Juliet had volleyball practice and Esme had something at school.
“Ava, I have to get back home. I haven’t even spoken to my wife today. She’s probably furious.”
Ava looked away and stared at her phone. I looked down and caught the name “Gavin…something”.
“Who is that Ava, One of Anson Cluber’s people?”
She tossed her hair to the left and smiled.
“Kind of, Caleb. It’s the doctor in Dallas we’ve lined up for Lena Cosburn and Clare Bunsen. I’m telling him how to implant the magnet and what to expect from his patients. They’ll be worked on tomorrow.
I rolled my head back and the lights caught me, doubling my vision again.
“What about the other two Ava; Lucas Bonner and Bruce Nolans. There were six of us? Are you taking care of them?”
Ava finished her text, got up, ran her right head over my fore head and frowned.
“Your fever is still high. We need to try and break it before you go back to Georgia. I don’t know about those guys. I asked Oliver and Gavin Todd, the doctor in Dallas. They’re clueless. I want to stay focused on you. If we can improve your condition, we can get you a new heart before any of the others.”
I rolled over onto my stomach. It seemed to help the dizziness. Ava moved her chair to the end of the table so she could see my face.
“Why do you care so much, Ava? I mean, I don’t believe Breann’s conspiracy theory that you, Wicks and this other guy want to glom robot glory for medical fame. You aren’t patient enough to wait for that to play out.”
Ava moved her face within a couple of inches on mine and ran her left hand over the three day scruff. She seemed resigned.
“I care about you. I always have. You were the one….. Caleb, we’re friends. You need a doctor you can trust. I know you trust me. It’s why you always call when you need me. You’re different and I know why. Most of all, I like why you are different. I know who and what you are. You let me know that. I feel like the least I can do is return that trust.”
The pain was starting to lose intensity. I sat up without losing balance. I knew I would regret engaging in nostalgia, but the song in my head was from a memory we shared and I had an idea
“Remember that Maria McKee concert we went to right after we started dating?”
Ava smiled and started murmring the lyrics to Sweet Sweet Baby. It was the Lone Justice song in my head. Maria McKee was their singer in the 1980s.
“Yeah, well, I tried to convince you for two days before the concert that the song was from when Maria was in Lone Justice. You argued that it was a new song from Maria. We had a huge fight. At the end of the concert, she played Sweet Sweet Baby as an encore, introducing the song as ‘something I wrote when I was with Lone Justice a few years ago’. You looked at me and said ‘Justice. Forgiveness’. I gained a lot of respect for you because you dropped your always have to right personality and showed some vulnerability. I need for you to do that now.”
Ava smiled and mouthed the word “okay”.
“I’d like to see Breann, call home, then we can go to the hotel.”
Ava smiled, bit her lip and held my hands as I dropped to the ground and gained my bearings.
‘Av, what am I; really?”
She didn’t respond right away, We walked through the exam room area and took a right turn. Inside a small room with yellow walls and a bed in the middle, Breann stood on her own while Wicks looked at a laptop. Ava closed the door.
“Caleb, Breann, you two are robotic. But when Oliver and I and hopefully Doctors Cluber and Bulas are through with you in a few months, you’ll be full robot-human hybrids with long, beyond normal lives.”
Breann and I were exhausted. We planned breakfast in the cab ride to my hotel. I took a call from Ava. Breann shook her head when I finished.
“Be careful with her Caleb. A necessary evil is still evil.”
I smirked and waved goodbye, then turned to see Ava in the lobby. We rode the elevator together to the fourth floor in silence.
“Do you need anything?”
I shook my head no and opened the room door. My phone vibrated. It was my wife. Ava approached, crossing the threshold.
“You’re forgetting something Caleb.”
She pressed her lips against mine.
Her breath against my skin was more overwhelming than the medication coursing through me. Ava opened her mouth and ran her lips over mine, grazing them as she spoke.
“There’s a reason why you haven’t stopped calling me over the years. It’s more than me being a doctor. You need, You always have. We’re connected, just admit it and let’s find a way to be together.”
I pulled away and closed my eyes. I hoped I was asleep and Ava was another bad dream. I reopened them and there she was, running her hands over my chest as she dropped her bags to the floor.
“Av, we’re married to people who deserve better. I’m sorry for leading you on. I’m scared. I’m dying. I’m a damn robot or something.”
I put my hands over my face, thinking about the phone call I should make and the fallout from the nuclear bomb that would be my life over the next few hours.”
Ava picked up her bags. She curled her lips and furrowed her thin blonde eyebrows. I knew the look. It was the same one she gave me when I rejected her years ago.
“Caleb Runson, you’re a coward. You live inside some box that you think is moral and good. It’s a lie. It’s a prison. I’m your ticket to freedom from the slow death inside of you. That heart isn’t the only thing going bad. I’m across the hall. Two doors, that’s it.”
She left, slamming the door to my room. I sat on the bed, and choked back tears. I dialed my phone and waited nervously for Shane’s voice.
I felt I was walking in slow motion when I got to the diner. It was the same spot where I met Breann days earlier for the first time.
“Dude, you look awful. Did you sleep at all?”
I hadn’t. Hours on the phone being yelled at by my rightfully indignant wife then a few hours of worrying about how to talk to Breann and Ava the next morning left me with perhaps an hour of sleep.
I wasn’t speaking at first. Breann and I had developed a chemistry. It was as if we’d known each other all of our lives.
“Look, Caleb, I know I’ve only known you for a 3 days, but we’re dying together so we might as well do it with maximum effort. Did you sleep with Ava?”
I looked at her with shock, then looked down at my eggs.
“Caleb, we’re related here. I mean, you know, like by parts inside of us and by some far out circumstances. I would never judge you. Ava is a snake. I’ve seen her kind all my life. I know women really well and I don’t like most of them. So, just tell me where your head is and I’ll be here.”
I felt nauseous from my guilt and anxiety.
“No, I didn’t sleep with her. I’ve been on the phone with Shane all night. I told her every minute of the last 24 hours. Three of those minutes included Ava and I kissing. her kissing me. Plus, her spending the night 50 feet away from me. I mean, I should be more concerned with finding the others, getting a new heart, and being with you. Instead, I’m worried about you hating me, my wife leaving me, and how to sit on a plane with Ava.”
Breann reached across the table grabbing both of my hands and looking at me in the eyes. Browns meeting browns. It was like looking in the mirror. It was the most comfortable I had been in days.
“Dude, we will stay together as much as we can. I’ll call Shane, introduce myself. I can’t promise you that you won’t be in the nastiest doghouse in Georgia for a while, but I’ll help you and your wife understand that this is an impossible situation. Just stop going off and dealing with Ava alone. She owns you. I’ve had a person or three get over on me through the years.”
Breann and I talked in the cab ride to the airport. She walked me through the airport. When I left her I felt better physically and mentally. Then I saw Ava in the terminal. She held two cups of hot chocolate. Then looked at me sheepishly.
“Hey. I didn’t sleep much but coffee would just make me jittery right now. I got us a couple of these.”
Typical of her. Act like nothing happened to protect herself.
“Ava, you’re right. I need you. I don’t trust anyone else with this crap inside of me. But I’m married and I love her. From now on we meet with my wife or Breann in the room. It’s professional and it’s with perspective. I know this is my fault. I take that on me.”
Ava took a drink of hot chocolate then sat her cup down next to her bags. She glared at me then composed her thoughts.
“Years ago, when you got divorced and we had chinese at our old favorite place downtown. I gave you a similar speech because I was getting married the next week. You were flirting. It was ok, you were single but I wasn’t. You were so screwed up because of your ex and the stress and your disorder. I went home that afternoon and told my fiance I couldn’t marry him. Then the next morning you wouldn’t answer your phone so I went back to him and made up some crap about cold feet. I told him to give me a do-over, like we were 10 years old playing in the backyard.”
She was crying. Huge tears streamed down her face. I believed they were real. I sat two chairs away but made peace.
“That’s what we have here Av. Let’s call this whole thing, The Do-Over.”
She stopped crying quickly, looked at me and smiled suspiciously.
“I’ll do it on one condition. Nothing is recorded, photographed, or put in Breann’s newspaper or the internet. I don’t want to be involved with the others. You agree and I’ll give you Anson Cluber and Bruce Nolans.”
I was dumbfounded by his demands. I played along.
“Deal. Name a place and time. I want to know where I come from.”
“No one can take Caleb’s personality away but Caleb. Lucas Bonner was a laid back, laconic, dud before he was worked on. He chose a brainscan program called The White. It takes away negative impulses and medicates the brain with a drug called Hx21. It’s still experimental. The side effects are depression and sensitivity to light.
I thought about Lucas being in that dark office then meeting me a shaded parking deck. It made sense.
“Caleb, Lucas is a different kind of guy. You don’t have to get the brainscan or the drugs. You need a new heart and repair to your central nervous system.”
Juliet hit me under the table. The pizza came as I leaned over to her.
“Ava thinks the others will run their mouths , I get that. Maybe you should do this on your own, let Ava lead the way, and I’ll have an awesome birthday.”
Juliet dug into her Hawaiian slices, Ava picked at her vegetarian and I just stared at my spinach and mushroom.
“Breann is in as good of shape as I am. Maybe we can get her to sign a confidentiality agreement. She knows enough.”
Ava threw down her fork.
“Juliet, please tell your dad that Breann Lucos is a journalist. That means she can’t help but give information to people that would not understand the complexities of this situation.”
I looked at Juliet who had a mouthful of cheese and pineapple. Ava kept going.
“Breann has a publishing deal with Parker-Jordan. She signed it in September, one week after she met you. She’s living off a 50 thousand dollar advance.”
I sat in shock. Juliet and Ava started chewing and looked at me. Then Juliet broke the ice.
“Dude, now I know why she’s a doctor. She knows a lot.”
I answered my phone, it was Breann. I excused myself and went near the hostess stand to talk. As Breann begged for information and told me our plans for the next few days in New York I looked at the table.
Ava and Juliet were talking kindly. Ava reached in her purse to hand something to Juliet. As I walked closer to the table, I told Breann I would call her back. Then I heard them talking.
“Here, take this eyeliner. I don’t really like it because it’s dark and young looking. It would be perfect you. Any time you need stuff like this let me know. My old college roommate sells cosmetics.”
Juliet’s gaze to Ava was different. She’d been charmed.
“Thanks. I think it’s really cool you care about my dad. You also have nice shoes.”
drove slowly through numerous neighborhoods. Halloween night in the suburbs meant kids running in the streets with and without parents; trick or treating. The eight mile ride took almost thirty minutes.
The inside of the car was silent. Juliet didn’t ask to listen to the radio. I knew there would be conversation after meeting with Ava. I was afraid to speak. Not because of Juliet’s reaction, but because of mine. She leaned over and turned on the radio. The male pop singer yelled, “it’s alright!” We laughed together. Juliet looked at me. Her blue eyes shown through the shadows as we passed by streetlights.
“Mom’s going to be mad no matter what because, it’s your ex-girlfriend and all that drama. But, I think Ava’s right. I mean, I’m not telling mom that or she’ll ground me forever. So, maybe we can figure out a way to make it all sound like our idea?”
I swelled with some pride. Juliet’s savviness had to come from me, I thought.
“Why do you think Ava’s right? Is it because you just want to go to Los Angeles so bad for your birthday or because it’s best for our family to keep everything private?”
Juliet turned the sound back up on the radio and I could see the teenage gears working. Then the sound went down again.
“You don’t really know the other ones. You know, Breann the other people with robotic parts and stuff. You know me, you know mom, my sisters, and you know Ava. I know you and mom think Ava’s shady but she wouldn’t put this much time into you if she wasn’t somewhat trustworthy of at least your health. You have to trust the people already in your life even if we aren’t big dumb robots.”
I started laughing. She smiled then spoked once more before turning the radio back on.
“You have a headlight out. Don’t hit any little kids.”
We waited at the intersection leading into our neighborhood as two dozen children went from one street to another. We saw our three witches; Shane and the girls, waving manically at our car. Juliet let the window down on her side and yelled something mindless at them.
As I pulled into the driveway, I looked at my daughter and made a decision.
“You want to call your new best friend and tell her the news?
Juliet opened her door, shivered at the cool October air.
“Oh but no, dad. Ava’s all yours. You call her. Unless she has more makeup. Then I’ll get involved.”
I stepped into the Halloween breeze. The coldness moved over me as I dialed Ava’s number. She answered.
”Hey there, I knew you would be calling back soon?”
I rubbed my now pounding temples, briefly realized the cons of dealing with Ava yet, still said the words.
“Call Anson Cluber and Lucas Bonner. Let’s do it your way, Av.”
The brown in my eyes were invaded by streaks of red. My bloodshot pupils happened from no sleep after arguing most of the night with Shane. I wanted to leave for a while. I packed for New York, hurriedly. I didn’t realize I forgot underwear and a toothbrush until I got to the airport parking lot. Ava called, I hit ignore. Then she texted.
_Taking the 4 o’clock to NY. I’ll call when I land_
I just wanted everyone to leave me alone; Shane, Ava, Juliet, and Breann. It was hard to think with their conflicting agendas. I typed back, without courage.
_ OK. I’m staying at The Stanton. Meeting the other at 5:45pm._
I returned phone calls and texts from work, Shane, and Breann. I turned off my phone until the plane landed.
When I got to New York, I still hadn’t slept. I felt feverish and my hands shook. I fumbled with my phone and dialed my wife. She answered on the first ring.
“I’m in love with you,Shane. Stick with me through this surgery and I’ll make things right.”
She answered tearily.
“Ok, I love you.”
I smiled for the first time that day.
East 60TH Street was vacant. It was the afternoon rush hhourI was the only person on the street. I looked inside Serendipity 3, saw Breann, Lena, and Clare laughing and having dinner. They were by themselves in the diner. I heard Ava’s voice behine me.
“Caleb, come with us”
I twisted violently and saw Ava dressed in a black cocktail dress , standing next to a black suited Lucas Bonner. He was expressionless but Ava smiled seductively, licked her teeth. She reached inside the seam of her dress, near her stockingless left thigh, and pulled out a syringe with a long needle. She smirked, pushing her shining blonde hair behind her right ear.
“I can make you better.”
My hands were shaking. My chest pounded. I didn’t look back at Serendipidity 3. I walked three steps toward Ava and Lucas. Breann’s voice wailed behind me.
“No! Don’t do it, Caleb. They’re lying to you!”
I sat up in bed quickly. I was breathing so hard and fast I thought I would lose consciousness. The sheets on the bed were wet and ripped. I had a broken a fever, my first one since getting the magnet implanted a few weeks ago. My phone was vibrating continously until it bounced off the night stand into a puddle of sweat in the bed. My left hand shook like a leaf in a March wind as I answered.
“Caleb, it’s Breann. I want to meet your hotel before we have dinner with the Lena and Clare.There’s stuff I have been chasing that I haven’t told you about and I know that you’re keeping stuff from me. This whole thing is spiraling out of control. Ava’s screwing both of us.”
I remembered what I had forgotten to pack in Georgia.
“Yeah, that’s fine. Meet me here. I’ve got to buy some underwear. You can tag along.”
She laughed loudly.
I smiled for the second and last time that day.
I woke in the hotel room to a pungent smell of burnt flesh. My eyes watered. Breann sat next to me, dabbing my tears with a cold cloth.
I looked down, shocked, as a soldering iron stuck out of my chest. The wound was fresh, smoldering, and gross.
“Hey you, keep holding my hand. He’s almost done. You’re his fourth repair today. He’s reached a level of perfectionism.
Breann’s words and awkward laugh weren’t comforting.
A small man wearing round glasses sat down in a swiveled black chair. Expressionless, he picked up a scalpel and rolled over to me.
“Breann, you think I’m making a mistake become a cog in this Ava machine but….”
Her angry glare added a disappointing shoulder shrug and bewildered head shake.
“No, Caleb, you are Ava’s machine!”
She walked out of the room and slammed the door so hard, the alarm clock next to the bed fell off the nightstand. I leaned over to pick it up and saw the time, 6:00pm. Six.
The walk from the hotel to the restaurant was long and cold. I changed into a long sleeved shirt but forgot a jacket. I didn’t have any cash so I didn’t bother with a taxi. I dialed Shane and the girls. They sounded funny and content. I kept my news brief and non-controversial. Shane could hear the confusion, the hurt and stress but she said she trusted me.
After about 15 blocks, I saw a dilapated basketball court. Two boys around 10 years old did jumpshots and taunted each other. I stopped to watch when it hit me. I had been in the spot I stood. I called my dad.
“Hey pop. I need for you to level with me again. When I was a kid, did you and mom take me back to New York?”
There was silence for a few seconds then I heard him breathe deeply and whisper into the phone.
“Your mom is the other room. She isn’t happy about you bringing all of this up. She thinks these doctors can hurt you more than help you. But yes, son, we took you back when you were in the second grade. You got hit in the chest playing baseball. The hippie one, Bulas, looked you over. He said you’d be alright but to keep you out of sports until you developed more.”
I didn’t play organized athletics until I was 14 years old. My parents told me it was because I had allergies and I was too small. I grew angry, but not at him. I had ignored so many things.
“I know you can’t talk but just answer this then say something about the girls and hang up. Did you ever take me to a basketball court several blocks from the Stanton Hotel?”
My dad was a awful actor but he mumbled some plesasantries, then breathed deeply. I imagined him running his thick fingers over his wrinkled forehead, then running them over his mouth to show nervousness.
“Yeah, we shot some hoops, why?”
I brushed off his question and said goodbye. Memories started to flow. The doctor’s visits, the inactivity as a child, the excuses for being different than my friends. I walked into the basketball court. The green grass that grew tall through the asphalt cracks was turning brown. The boys turned to me and looked worried.
“Are we in trouble mister? You the police? You don’t look like police.”
I smiled and felt flattered.
“No. I played on this court a long time ago. I just wondered if you’d let me have a few shots?”
The boys looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders, and one of them bounced the ball to me. For the next few minutes I warmed to the November coolness by poorly shooting jumper after jumper. My chest felt good. I was gaining strength. The boys laughed at me. We taunted each other. Briefly, my life seemed carefree.
A woman of medium height, dark skinned, pretty, around 35 years old; stood at the chain link fence entrance to the court. Her arms were crossed but she smiled, slightly. I addressed her.
“These your boys?”
She dropped her arms and the boys walked over to her.
“Yeah, I let them play here before dinner every night. The 9 year old takes care of the 11 year old for me while I get some peace in the house.”
I laughed and gave the oldest boy the basketball.
“I have three girls. The youngest, she’s in kindergarten, runs the house. I can relate.”
I followed them out of the court into the street. The boys started asking their mom questions about dinner, homework, television, and bedtimes. She turned to me.
“You from around here?”
I shook my head at the possibilities of the question. I looked at the boys.
“I was born here. I live in Georgia. I guess you can say I’m in between places right now.”
She raised her eyebrows and put her arms around her sons.
“Home is where your kids are, man. That’s where you should always be. Take care of those girls.”
I waved goodbye to them and walked the rest of the way to Serendipity 3.
I looked into the window of the restaurant and saw Breann, Lena, Clare, and Dr. Ober talking and laughing. I felt eyes looking at me but instead of turning around, I walked inside.
Ava texted me twice before I sat down at in the restaurant. Iy was striking how much our relationship hadn’t changed over the years. She’d manipulate and antagonize, I’d run away and reject, then guilt would take over and we’d behave irrationally. I ignored her for now.
Thurman Ober’s social skills were better in Serendipity 3. He greeted me with his tiny hand extended and a wry smile. Everything about him was small and quiet. It was the opposite with Breann, Lena and Clare. They had two months of internet contact, phone calls, and face to face conversation that I did not. Breann stepped forward to introduce them but Clare’s large hands grabbed mine and she pulled me into her long red hair and porcelain face for a hug. Lena was tall, raven haired and muscular. She seemed to wear a “big, Texan housewife” sign on her round expressive face. Lena and Clare smiled broadly and Lena grabbed me for an awkward embrace.
“Finally! We were starting to think you were Breann’s imaginary brother not a real live person. Getting to meet you is awesome. This is the icing on the cake!”
That drew a smile. I sat next to Dr. Ober. Breann had pontailed her shoulder length brown hair with a pencil. She mouthed “we okay?” to me and I reached across the table to squeeze her nervous fingers. We were okay. After pleasantries about families, jobs, and health, I started the conversation with Dr. Ober.
“My doctor, Ava Pennington, showed me a picture of what the heart will look like, as well as the other nervous sytem and brain connections. Is her information accurate?”
Dr. Ober removed his round glasses to clean them with napkins from the metal holder on the table. He put them back on and began.
“Caleb, I’m a scientist, not a physician. I’m a futurist at heart but a biochemical and structural engineer in study. What I do know is the hearts that were implanted in each of you , as well as at least two others you all know about, are called CVR14 or cardiovascular replacement models. The 14 stands for something on the patents I assume. They were designed by Connor Bulas and Anson Cluber in 1968 for a study about android technology. I was at the conference at the University of Columbia where they showed these models. They were crude but effective in relaying how metal hydraulics could pump blood, centralize neurons, and operate a human being for years at a time. Bulas and Cluber kind of disappeared after that. They didn’t show at any science fairs or medical conferences until 1971. Which, of course, is post implemnetation into you all. I can not speak to what happened during your surgeries. I studied their CVR14s for many years, and thus that’s how I knew to change the opening valve mechanism.”
Breann took over. Telling our waitress to come back in five minutes. She started asking questions.
“How much of us are robotic? Why are we failing? What can you tell me about Lucas Bonner and his advanced state of repair?”
Dr. Ober never changed expression and never took his eyes off Breann as he spoke.
“Your heart is a metal encased, hydraulic pump controlled, inhuman mechanism. It is not an organ. While it uses your blood, membranes, tissues and cells, it can work independent of your body after it is extracted. Now, inside of you, it’s outdated. You bodies grew over the last 40 years. The metals shavings caused from acids, food, foreign particles and other antibodies have become poison. Your other organs are rejecting your heart because it’s hydraulics are obsolete. Your bodies are most likely incapable of accepting human hearts because of the poison, areas that were cut during surgery and repair, and brain actualities such as mental illness or synapse control. I have not met this Lucas Bonner. By what Caleb described to you, Breann, I am to believe Lucas Bonner’s claim of being made hybrid is possible. I have studied futuristic possibilities for four decades. Technological singularity or man becoming machine will happen within the next one to two decades. If Bulas or Cluber or some other person has perfected this, I would not be surprised.”
With as much time spent on the internet between me and the three women at the table I wasn’t surprised no one’s eyes were glossed over by Dr. Ober’s analysis. The waitress came back and we all ordered. Lena’s Texas drawl was up next for Dr. Ober.
“So, are their other people capable of helping us other than Cluber or whoever this Bulas is? I mean, so far things have been unusual, weird, and a flat out mess .”
Thurman Ober seemed a calm man of certain refinement. He chose his words carefully. Offending or disparaging fellow doctors, regardless of field or action, didn’t appear to be his way.
“The problem all of you share is your doctors are likely the only people who know how those robotic hearts work inside of your bodies. I may have repaired a valve but I was not familiar with how those mechanisms were used in your chest cavities. Even your personal physicians that are being tutored by Anson Cluber for your upcoming surgeries probably are not aware of the complexities of implanting advanced robotics. “
Ober stopped speaking and looked away. Breann begged him to continue.
“Dr. Ober, we need all the information we can get.”
He took his glasses off again and looked at each of us with sternness.
“Everything I know about technological singularity comes with an awareness that the doctors who work on you own the parts. Those hearts belong to Anson Cluber and Connor Bulas. Now, both men are in their seventies. They also may take the glory througout the medical community and the robotics industry but I am certain that the doctors they entrust with your care will be the only people who know how the robotic parts inside of you work.”
The food came to the table and the smell of my burger was so delectable that I put hands over my face to retain the scent. I knew what Dr. Ober’s words meant but I didn’t want to ask the question. Clare did.
“You’re saying our doctors own us?”
Thurman Ober looked into his salad. Breann threw down her fork and said exactly what I was thinking.
“Yes, Clare, they will own us! That’s why Ava is so hot for Caleb and why Gavin Tood or Oliver Wicks won’t let us talk to Cluber or find Bulas. We’re their payoff. Cluber gets the fame in the mad scientist monthly and his minions get their own minions!”
The table was silent. Our waitress slowly approached the table, refilled our drinks and slinked away. Finally Lena announced.
“I’m sorry, ya’ll, but I need to go to to the bathroom. Anybody coming?”
Clare accompanied Lena but Breann stayed seated. She looked me with hurt eyes. I looked toward Dr. Ober.
“If you were in our position, what would you do?”
For the first time since meeting Thurman Ober in the hotel room he didn’t hesitate.
“Get the surgery. Dr. Cluber’s motives and methods may be suspect but you six are medical marvels. What you could mean to others is amazing. You will have some top notch medical attention whether you want it or not, for the rest of your lives. You all should find Connor Bulas, if it’s possible. The rumors of him becoming an expert in the field of genetically modified food are probably true. He may be willing to help you against Dr. Cluber’s ethics. Use the technology. I have added years to my life by eating healthy, employing advanced vitamin therapy, and using robotics to cure arthritis.”
I took some bites and thought about Shane and the girls. I knew my importance, but being involved with Ava was now a permanent problem.
“Dr. Ober, can Breann and the others I stay in touch with you for advice?
Ober nodded yes and gave a miniature grin. The others came back from the restroom and rejoined the conversation. Lena and Clare grew on me as our visit continued. They were as scared, confused, and stressed as Breann and I. After dinner, Lena, Clare and Thurman Ober hailed cabs. Breann and I decided to walk back to my hotel. She grabbed my arm at the door of the restaurant.
“Did you leave that change the waitress gave me for the rest of the tip?”
I had not, so she went inside. I turned toward the street and saw Ava and Lucas in black overcoats, standing side by side across the way. I put my thumb and finger to my eyes and looked again. They were gone.
I turned and saw Breann staring at me with concern. I put my hand to her face, moving her brown bangs away. Like me she was graying in her temples. I checked her forehead for fever. Breann did the same to me. We were warm.
“What are you going to do about Ava as far as your wife and kids are concerned?”
The wind began to gust and it felt like the temperature had dropped 10 degrees since we had been in the restaurant.
“I don’t know . I hope someone other than me will back down from their emotions and stances.
We talked about nonsense and music for the rest of the walk. As we got to the hotel, Ava was getting out of a cab. I looked at Breann and her eyes appeared to ingite. She hugged me good night and took Ava’s ride. Ava sneered at Breann and then smiled devilishly toward me.
“Did she cry when you told her?”
I began walking inside then turned to find Ava by my side.
She handed me her handbag and took off her overcoat and draped it over my shoulders.
“Oh good grief, Caleb, let me have some fun. Your surgery is in 62 days. So it’s my medical advice, you relax and not get caught up in the others’ drama.”
I took the coat off, draped in over my arm and we got in an open elevator together. I glared at her.
“You’re right. Your drama is more than enough.”
The elevator door closed and the metal box began to ascend. Ava reached for the stop button and suddenly we were suspended between the first and second floors. She moved strands of blond hair behind her right ear, licked her lips and moved within inches of my face. She ran her long fingers over my chest toward my waist then detoured into the inside pocket of the overcoat. She removed a white envelope and backed away a few inches, while she tore it open and took out a piece of white paper.
“Read this to me. “
I remembered what was on the paper. It was a letter I sent Ava five years earlier the day I didn’t show after she told her husband she had cold feet.
“I wrote that a long time ago Ava.”
She shoved the paper to my chest, hard.
“Read it Caleb. You treat me like I’m a cold hard bitch, but I’m not a liar like you.”
I felt sure she didn’t know who Thurman Ober was or at least what I learned from him.
“You lie like I never could Av. The stuff you’ve left out about my heart, Cluber, this whole thing. It’s all a lie. You can’t own me regardless of whether I have this surgery.”
Ava didn’t flinch. Her blue eyes steeled. I could see the tightness of my face in them. I hit the button to start the elevator. She pointed her right index finger toward her chest, crumbling the letter.
“You’ve been mine since college. The day I turned down two other boys to let you take me to that homecoming football game, you belonged to me.”
I stared blankly at her. My tolerance for nostalgia was low. She kept going.
“What? Have you been watching Terminator movies? Talking to Breann and her conspiracy hens? Without me, you’re dead. Anson Cluber can’t find Connor Bulas, so he’s created a hybrid network that will turn you into an almost perfect specimen. Without me, Gavin and Oliver, Dr. Cluber wants nothing to do with you, Breann, and those two southwestern housefraus.”
The elevator opened to the third floor. I fought back.
“You’re not coming in. I won’t start taking housecalls until January.”
I walked away from her and the letter. She fumbled out of the elevator, getting her coat, handbag and the paper into one arm.
“Read it to me! “
I took the letter from her hand. Her slender fingers waved over mine. I looked into her face. Her eyes had softened. She was hurt, like Breann earlier.
“I know what it says. I told you we were connected. I wrote that we should have found a way to be together when we were in our thirties. We’re forty now. I’m married and technically so are you. So I’m not yours, regardless of what happens if I get the surgery. I shouldn’t have written …”
Ava didn’t want me to finish. She moved quickly, pushing me violently against the hallway wall. Then my face grazed hers and she moved her lips into mine reaching her right hand behind my head and pulling my hair. The kiss was brief, but effective. I was pinned against the wall and looking side to side for someone to see us.
“Ava, get your stuff and come inside.”
She smiled and followed me into the room. Before she could come after me again I grabbed her arms, held them behind her and shoved her hard into the now closed door. My mouth was an inch away from hers and she pursed, expecting me to continue.
“This isn’t happening Av. You answer a question for me and I’ll have the surgery.”
We were breathing hard and she reached her mouth for mine. I pulled away but still held her arms behind her. She shook her yes and kept panting.
“Were you planning on telling me before the surgery that you were owning the heart and stuff inside of me?”
I let go of her arms and she bound toward me, balling the front of my shirt in her hand, lightly kissing my lips, whispering her answer.
“There is no law saying I have to. Robotics are so new, there are no patient-doctor commandments. Dr. Cluber says that I have to be your personal physician because of privacy and patent issues. Trust me, though. After the surgery, you’ll like me a lot more than you think you do now.”
I turned away from her. She put her arms around my waist and buried her face in my back.
“I’ll do it, Av. Don’t worry about Breann and the others. I’m not sorry I wrote that letter. I just need to think right now.”
She took her arms away from me waist. The door slammed.
“Ava, not right now now!”
I opened the hotel room door shirtless and saw Breann, Lena and Clare. Their awkward stares and curled lips left me struggling for an explanation. Lena drawled sarcastically.
“Your wife gave us permission to kidnap you. I guess just in time?”
I smiled and looked for a shirt.
“Sorry, I was about to go to sleep.”
Breann forced a smile and let me know their mischievious plans.
“Since we only have one night in New York, we’re going to get tattoos and get drunk. The tattoo place won’t let us get drunk first. “
Clare seemed giddy with the tattoo notion.
“We’re going to get roman numerals for how we were all born or made or whatever. Lena’s 3, I’m 4, you’re 5, and baby girl Breann is 6.”
Getting a tattoo nor getting drunk worried me. I was interested. But getting it decided for me turned me off.
“Girls, why don’t we just go get some drinks and talk about how screwed up all of this seems.”
As I turned toward my suitcase, Breann stepped by my right side. She leaned in and whispered.
“Have you done something awful with Ava? I don’t know your body language well enough to make that call?”
I wasn’t offended by the question. I knew I looked guilty of something.
“Hey guys, can you two wait downstairs. I just need to talk with Breann for a few minutes. I’ll buy the first round.”
They mumbled into the hallway til they reached the elevator. I sat down on the bed and put my face in my hands.
“I haven’t slept with her. We’ve exchanged kisses and crossed some emotional lines. I’m going to tell Shane when I get back. My head is so mixed up by what to do. I told Ava I would do the surgery with her and Cluber in January. That doesn’t mean I’m not supportive or connected to you and Lena and Clare. I want to track down Bruce, Connor Bulas, and Lucas again. But I have to get keep myself alive for my family.”
Breann sighed and sat on the bed next to me. She hunced her shoulders, looked into my eyes and started talking.
“The first time I ever got into a relationship with another woman was the best thing and worst thing together. It saved my life at first then nearly killed me while it lasted. I see similarities with you and Ava so I can’t help but feel related.”
She leaned back on the bed and stared at the ceiling, wistfully.
“I met Eleanor in college. Just like you and Ava. We were dating guys. Our boyfriends played lacrosse at Seton Hall. We would go watch their matches. She was more cute than pretty. But she had those eyes. You know, like Ava’s. Blue, deep, and completely wicked. We flirted a few times. After we broke up with those guys we didn’t see each other for almost two years. I graduated college and got my first job at the Newark Register. I worked the lifestyle section. For some stupid reason I was doing runner stuff, like research, but less important, on a story about restaurants owned by celebrities. Eleanor was a sous chef at this Asian place owned by that guy in those Rush Hour movies. Not Jackie Chan but the one who’s not as funny as Chris Rock. When I saw Eleanor I was just taken. She was engaged to a guy but I guess we just were in each other’s head or something. Eleanor dumped her fiance for a while and we went at each other for months. It was out in the open and everything. I even took her to my office Christmas party at the Register. We had sex in my copy editor office.”
I rolled my eyes and put my shirt on. I realized Breann was sharing something vital.
“Dude, that’s too much, really. Don’t gross me out. We’re like kind of brother and sister, you know?.”
Breann laughed, sat up on the bed, hit me in the arm and kept talking.
“Eleanor liberated me. I was myself 24-7. I didn’t care that people knew I was in love with a woman. Well, I was in lust with El, not love, but the point is, I didn’t hide from anything. She was bad news, though. I was a fling for her. By the time it was all over, her fiance took her back on the condition she never contact me and vice versa. I lost my job at the Register because El made me look so reckless. A couple of years later I ran into her out somewhere in the city. El acted like the past never happened. She hit on me, even though she was married. We saw each other on and off for about three months. Nothing sexual happened but it was just wrong. I think her husband found out or Eleanor got bored. She stopped calling me and I moved to another part of the city. I swore I would never let myself or anyone I cared about go through that. The next three or four women I dated paid for the sins of Eleanor. I know some of this is different than what you are going through with Ava. They do have the same eyes and disregard of morality. Ava also doesn’t respect you or Shane or me or anyone else that matters. She sees you for what you can do for her. By the time this is all over, she will destroy your happiness. It will take you years to get over it. If you get over it at all.”
I understood what she was telling me. I felt even closer to Breann than before. I walked over to the bathroom and finished getting ready. By the time I reappeared in the foyer, Breann was crying.
“Thanks for telling me about Eleanor. When I get back home, I will figure out a way for my family to come first in all of this. That includes you.”
Breann hugged me. I felt the wetness of her eyes under my left ear. I squeezed her tightly and whsipered in her ear.
“It we did olde english designs it would look better.”
Breann let go of me and wiped her brown eyes dry.
“We should get tramp stamps saying ‘deliver us from evil women’.”
I pushed Breann out the door as she was laughing and looked down at my phone. Ava was calling. I hit ignore.
The lamp Shane threw at me was broken in six pieces. The light bulb didn’t shatter, but the base and switch were destroyed. I laughed at the symbolism, not realizing Juliet was watching from the doorway.
“I didn’t know who to be mad at until now. You’re laughing?”
She didn’t see what I saw. Her tone was pained and indignant. I felt like I was in quicksand.
“Sweetie, I wasn’t laughing at your mom or the argument. It’s the lamp.”
When Juliet was angry with me should would remove all emotion from her face, look away, and flip her hair nonchalantly. She did this three times in less than thirty seconds before speaking.
“I texted Ava and told her to stop sending me makeup and leave us alone. I should have said me and mom since you obviously don’t care about us.” She was out of line and wrong. I wasn’t going to convince her otherwise.
“Are you going to leave mom for Ava, like, now, or after you have the surgery?”
Before I could answer, my wife appeared beside my daughter in the door. The tears in Shane’s eyes had disappeared. They were replaced by lines if anger.
“This should be rich. I want to hear you answer her, Caleb.”
I picked up the pieces of the lamp and placed them in the bedroom trashcan. I was cornered. I couldn’t exit the room. I didn’t have an answer that wasn’t
patronizing or cruel. I pulled off my grey t-shirt.
“Look this me. Under this scar, skin, tissue, blood, muscle and bone is a bomb. Soon, it will explode. The only people who can help are, well, not good . I’m
still searching for someone better.”
Juliet corrected her blank expression, crossed arms, and her gaze was hopeful. Shane steamed like a boiling pot of tea. I shook my head and bit my top lip so hard I felt blood in my mouth.
“I want you to live, dad.”
I walked over to her and hugged her, hard, around her head and shoulders. I lightly kissed her forehead.
“Maybe it would be best if I stayed at the old house until I can find out more
information with Breann and the others. I have messed up with your mom. I don’t
know how to make it all better right now.”
Gambling that raw emotion and bare honesty would hold her feelings, I released
her from our hug and looked at both of them. Shane reached her right hand out
and touched my fingers and Juliet’s arm.
“Let me talk to your dad for a while.”
Juliet walked out, crying. Shane and I just stared at the off white carpet.
“I think that’s a good idea. You should go stay in that house for a while. You have two weeks of vacation you haven’t taken.I trust Breann to help you find
answers. You, well, we need something or someone who can help other than a woman who wants to sleep with my husband. I’ll take the girls to mom’s for a couple of hours and you can pack. Just call Juliet’s phone. I don’t want to talk to you.”
I didn’t argue. I packed enough for a couple of weeks. I called Breann, Lena and Clare. We started brainstorming ways to find Connor Bulas and Bruce Nolans. Sitting in a two bedroom split level with no electricity, I thumbed through my phone. I stopped at Lucas Bonner’s phone number. I walked outside to use the street lights as company. The call went to voice mail. I dialed again. Then a third time. A chilly November breeze blew through me. I dropped my cell phone in the browning grass, covered in moonlight and shadows. I squeezed my hands into white-knuckled balls. Pain rolled through my chest and I dropped to my knees. The phone was inches from my right knee. The vibration startled me. An odd calm came over me as I answered.
“Hello, is this Caleb Runson, the guy in Atlanta?”
The voice wasn’t Lucas Bonner’s. It was female.
“Yes it is. Who’s this?”
There were several seconds of silence. She heaved, like she was crying.
“This is….I am, uh, Gwen Bonner. Lucas is my husband. He left his other cell phone, the business one, here at the house when he left.”
I chose my words carefully. Lucas had told me he didn’t want any contact with me. Badgering his wife for information wasn’t the right way to do things.
“Is Lucas alright? I mean, well, I know about his medical history. That’s how we
know each other.”
She sighed again, then whimpered.
“Lucas is fine. It’s Bruce Nolans. He had a heart attack. He’s in a hospital in Bozeman, Montana. It doesn’t sound good unless, well, you know.”
I didn’t know but I assumed Lucas was trying to get Bruce a new heart. I acted like a I knew Bruce.
“I know he had been sick. Lucas and I talked about it the last time I saw him. You sound so upset. I don’t want to burden you, especially at night. My kids are
in bed at this time. Do you know the name of the hospital?”
Gwen Bonner sniffled, rustled papers and breathed into the phone.
“It’s Bozeman Deaconess. That’s what I overheard Lucas tell his doctor. He left for Montana over an hour ago. If you find out anything, please call this number,
no matter how late.”
I jumped to my feet and ran into the house after hanging up. I gathered everything I had packed and got in my car and started driving toward the
airport. I called Breann.
“Hey you. Start looking for flights from Atlanta or Birmingham to Bozeman. Bruce Nolans is dying or dead in a hospital there. I think Lucas is about to land and
get himself a robot-human hybrid brother whether Bruce wants it or not.”
I woke up on the floor on my office building. It was closer to the airport that the house. I couldn’t get an early flight but Breann found one out of Newark, New Jersey at 6:15am. Breann called me from the Bozeman, Montana hospital.
“He died? Bruce wouldn’t get the surgery?”
Breann hadn’t slept much. She was snide. Her sighs were like a tiger’s growl.
“No, dude. He’s gone. There’s no one here. No one will talk to me. It’s like they vanished. Lucas’ wife must have told him that you knew about Bruce’s heart attack.”
I felt lost. I struggled for a response.
“They had to take them to Los Angeles. That’s where Cluber’s set up. Ava told me she was going there soon to train for my surgery.”
Breann didn’t answer. Her phone was muffled by her hand or someone else’s. There was a struggle between her and a male voice. I thought I heard “let me have the phone”. Then I heard a smack. The connection dropped.
I climbed the stairs to the roof to get better reception. The Atlanta November morning wind caused shivers. Breann called back. Her speech was overwhelmed with pants.
“I’m running to the parking lot. This security guy hassled me and I punched him in the face and got my phone back. Oh my God, I hope I didn’t just smack a real cop! I’ll call when I get on the road.”
I ran back down to my office and got my stuff together. By the time I got my car, she called back.
“Hey, ok, here’s the deal. Don’t come to Bozeman, like, at all. I heard a nurse say I was trespassing. I think I’m persona non grata here. I’m driving to the Bozeman airport. This is where you tell me what the hell we’re supposed to do next.”
Breann was asking me questions to a test for which I didn’t study. I saw the entrance ramps for the interstate. If I took a right, I went to the airport. It I took a left I went back towards an alternative idea that wasn’t going to make anyone happy.
“I’m headed to Ava’s, Breann.”
Breann started cursing to herself and saying the words “no, no, no” away from the phone. Then she collected herself.
“I don’t think they went to Los Angeles. I don’t know why I think that, but just stuff I’ve seen here. The nurse said that the doctors told her I was trespassing. Maybe Bulas has joined the party or one of Ava’s friends is involved. So, just be careful. Wear a condom.”
I didn’t bother calling Ava. Her texts the night before told me she was home. She was staying at the house she lived in before her marriage too. The driveway was empty but she told me her car was being serviced. I walked around the front yard to knock on the patio doors. Inside, I saw her in goggles, with what looked like an artificial torso. She had something that resembled a laser pointer. I tried to take a picture of it and send it to Breann, but phone blurried the image. I turned my back to the patio to figure it out when Ava opened the door.
“Caleb, what are you doing?”
I put my phone inside my jeans pocket and turned around sheepishly.
“I’m being really bad at checking up on you.”
Ava crossed her arms and shook her head. She opened the door further and motioned for me to enter.
“Leave the stalking and the terrible private detective work to Breann and your internet buddies. It’s cold out there. Come in and tell me why your daughter doesn’t like me anymore.”
She showed me what she was working on. It was a preview of what the side of my chest would look like. I told Ava as much as I thought she should know and might already. I didn’t reveal me leaving home. Ava took it all it, made me hot chocolate and finally said something.
“Dr. Cluber is in London at a robotics conference. Oliver is in Kentucky seeing his mom. I dont know what Gavin is up to, but I think he’s got a new girlfriend who’s a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, or he’s photoshopping his cyberbook pictures. Lucas wouldn’t take Bruce to L.A. without Dr. Cluber. Maybe Bruce is dead and his family doesn’t want you and Breann in their personal business?”
There were some times when Ava’s smarm was actually wise. I was starting to agree. Instead of conspiracy, maybe Bruce Nolans and Lucas Bonner were just private people who wanted to be left alone. Then Ava said something startling.
“If you approach Lucas alone, he’ll talk to you because you’re the best candidate for the surgery. Your heart is most similar to the first two. Everything else is identical to Breann.”
They put the same types inside the boys and different ones in the girls. This meant Connor Bulas was involved.
“Where’s Connor Bulas, Ava? He’s close to Bozeman, Montana isn’t it.”
Ava scooped up the cups and walked toward the kitchen sink and tried to change the subject.
“I got three movies from webshow. One of them has stuff that blows up and a girl with big boobs.”
I grabbed Ava’s arm and turned her toward me. She pulled her blonde hair behind her ears and but her top lip.
“Bulas is in Langdon, North Dakota. He and Cluber did Lucas’ surgery a few years ago. That’s ll I know. If you take me with you and leave Breann out they’ll talk to you and maybe go ahead and prep you for January. You take Breann or Lena or Clare and they will be ghosts to us.”
The light was off in her kitchen. The long shadows off of her silouette collided with the morning sunlight. Breann was right. Ava had those eyes. Blue, grey,deep, wicked, explosive; like gunpowder. I shook my head yes. Ava left the room to pack. I texted Breann.
- “Go back home.” -
Ava and I fell asleep on the flight to Montana. I woke with her blonde hair draped over my right arm. It reminded me of a trip we took together to Miami in college. I pushed her head away and went to the lavatory.
I returned to Ava smiling at m.
“Caleb, I almost followed to the back. It could have been like our Miami experience.”
I just wanted to stay focused on our business in Bozeman.
“Av, I’ll split the difference with you. You be my doctor on this trip and I’ll talk about something else when we get back.”
During a 55 minute layover in Minneapolis, I bought a hoodie and a Minnesota Twins baseball cap. The cold weather was difficult in Minnesota. It was supposed to be brutal in North Dakota. I ditched Ava while she paid for her items to text Breann from the restroom. Before Ava and I left for Atlanta I sent Breann the only information I knew.
_”12 hour drive to Langdon, ND. CBulas there”_
I walked to the last stall and called her. She picked up on the first ring.
“Dude, I better get a boob job, some liposuction and a new heart. The ride from Montana to North Dakota is ridiculously boring. I want extras!”
I laughed quietly. Someone walking lightly entered the sink area. I couldn’t see if they were female or a child. I whispered my response.
“I can’t talk. Google food silos and genetic engineered crops in Langdon. That’s where we are going. We should be there 3 or 4 hours.”
I could hear Breann pulling her car over to the side of the road. She was writing.
“I know I’m not invited. I will stay back until you call in the New York calvalry. You sound as beat as I am.”
I was feverish, aching, and my chest was hurting. It was a struggle to talk.
“I’m not waiting for January. Let’s kick some ass in Langdon.”
Ava and I landed in Grand Forks and rented a Chevy Impala. The trunk and back seat were huge. She took some pills from her chest.
“Caleb, take these and get some sleep while I drive.”
I glared at Ava wondering why she had them in her bra.
“Oh good grief. I had two codeine left at home. I saw how you wincing. I put them in my underwear to get through security. It’s all I have to help til we get to Connor Bulas. You need some sleep.”
A whistling wind from a poorly closed car door woke me. I saw Ava speaking to a man in a blue uniform. He was a large, maybe 6’4″, with a thick black mustache, a dark blue baseball cap, and a holster on his right hip holding a gun. I got out of the car. Ava turned toward me and yelled.
“Get back in the car now! Do it!”
I thought she was overreacting. I put my hands in my hoodie to get them warm.
“What’s the big deal? Are we going inside here or somewhere else?”
A heaviness came behind me. A sharp pain shot across my neck. My entire body felt like it cramped. My arms dropped to my side and I lost control of my legs. I heard Ava crying. The cold engulfed me. I blacked out.
My eyes were open but I couldn’t focus on anything around me. A sharp pain shot through my left side and screamed out helplessly. I heard Ava’s voice.
“Caleb, it’s me. That idiot stun gunned you with 20, 000 volts. If he had shot you, we could have taken the bullet without a problem. Now you have electrical current bouncing off the metal and magnet inside your body. I’m trying to reduce the effects, but it’s a slow process. I’m so sorry. You should have stayed in the car.”
I closed my eyes because the blurred vision was making my head hurt. My arms, legs, and torso were twitching intermittently. Pain increased with each seizure. I reached my right hand outward, hoping Ava was nearby. A male’s hand gripped mine, firmly.
“Hello, number 5. I’m , Connor Bulas. What a fine physical specimen you became.”
I opened my eyes and saw a blurry figure. He was tall, looked younger than I expected, then the headaches and eye twitches started and I shut to black.
“Doctor Bulas? Why have you been so hard to find? Five of us are pretty messed up. “
I heard no answer. Ava walked back beside me and stroked my face to massage the ticks.
“Was that really Bulas, Ava? Is he going to work on me and Bruce?”
I heard Ava close the curtain around the bed I was in, then sit down in a wooden chair and pulled it close. I opened my eyes and saw her worried face inches from mine.
“we’re screwed. I don’t know what I can say about Bulas. He’s weird, maybe deranged, and I’m not sure he’s equipped to do the necessary robotic upgrades you need. This stun gun charge could kill you if we can’t neutralize the current away from your heart. You nervous system is trashed. I don’t even think Bulas is a doctor of anything but artificial food. Those security guards thought we were here to steal their genetic engineering secrets for corn.”
I felt trapped. I closed my eyes.
“Can you get a hold of Anson Cluber and move up my surgery?”
Ava had both of my hands in hers. My body was in revolt. Wherever the charge landed, I would seizure abruptly.
“Let’s go watch Bulas work on Bruce Nolans. If he knows what he’s doing, I’ll advise Dr. Cluber that you need immediate repair. Lucas Bonner wants to talk to you alone. I told him he wasn’t getting anywhere near you without me in the room.”
I smiled. Ava’s possessiveness found a way to become an asset.
“Tell him we’re ready to talk.”
Ava left the room.
I looked for my phone. The blue jeans I had been wearing were hanging on the chair Ava sat when she moved close to me. I reached for them. My arm hurt so bad but I winced through the pain and snagged the jeans pocket with my pinky and forefinger. I took the phone out. Their was one bar of charge left. I called Breann. She answered immediately.
“Hey, I’m here. I’m behind the high school. I heard two securty guard guys talking about a dude they stun gunned. They are worried they’re getting fired. Please tell me they got the gender wrong and it’s Ava writhing in pain.”
I knew i had little time before Ava and possibly Lucas would be back.
“Nope, I’m that dude. I’m inside one of the buildings. There’s some grey or silver lights. The walls are red. It’s like gymnasium turned into a MASH unit. I would suggest being more ninja than commando, but, it’s your call. I have to hang up.”
Ava and Lucas opened the curtain. The blurriness masked their facial expression. Ava spoke first.
“That was the wife and kids, right?”
I smiled and winced and shook my head in agreement. Ava walked over and took my phone and put it in her jacket pocket. I closed my eyes and listened to Lucas drone.
“Bruce Nolans should be dead. His heart attack was massive. Dr. Bulas is keeping his heart and brain alive through artificial means, but can not do so much longer. Bruce never told his family his medical predicament . Dr. Bulas is getting power of attorney to do the surgery. “
Ava took over the conversation.
“Lucas, look around. This is a high school gym turned into mad scientist laboratory. Dr. Bulas doesn’t have the necessary components, applications, or robotic sensibilities to pull this off. You have to agree, this is not the ideal situation for a total hybrid transformation.”
Lucas showed no emotion. I couldn’t focus on his eyes. Ava leaned over and whispered in my ear.
“He’s taking his shirt off and getting a scalpel from that supply closet?”
Lucas sterilized the knife and stuck it into his ribs, He was cutting toward his heart. He stopped after butchering several inches of flesh. Suprisingly, I didn’t see very much blood. Ava whispered in my ear again.
“Oh my God.”
Lucas put the scalpel down and asked a nurse from outside the curtain for stitching. Then he walked over to me.
“Run your fingers over the metal carriage and compare it to what you have now.”
My fingertips were shocked. The detail of the metal, the lack of a red battery light, the strength of the muscle over the metal; it was impressive and much betetr than what I had inside of my body.
“Connor Bulas built this and the heart. Anson Cluber implanted it. Cluber is on a plane to Langdon, North Dakota. Bruce will not live make it through the night. But you, Caleb, will. Bruce Nolans will have the upgrade because Connor Bulas and I will get power of attorney. You will have the upgrade because of that security guard. If you think walking out of this “mad scientist laboratory” is an option, you are mistaken. You and Ava Pennington made a mistake coming hwere. Connor and I will correct that mistake. One, two and five will be done.”
Lucas strode unaffected to the nurse and she began stitching his wound. Ava looked at me, concerned.
“Caleb, I just got a text from Dr. Cluber’s assistant. They’ll be in North Dakota in six hours. Looks like we are out of time and options. I’ll be scrubbed in the entire time, I promise. We can do it here in room 5.”
Ava put my cell phone in my hand and walked over to Lucas, who was still being stitched. They were blocked from seeing me text Breann.
_”Room 5, held against will, come now, Ava’s in with us”_
The twitching and searing pain lowered in intensity. I took the electrical nodes off my arms and chest and peered out of the partition. I could see Ava talking to Lucas and Dr. Bulas. She had that look she got when she wasn’t getting her way. Her blue eyes narrowed and shot lasers of hate into the two men. Breann texted.
_Outside by dumpster in rear of building. Gavin Todd is here!_
Ava came to me full of anger.
‘Why are you out of bed? Where are Breann and Gavin?”
I didn’t respond.
“Caleb, Breann may be your partner in crime but Gavin’s mine. He’s paranoid that his patients aren’t going to be invited to the poker table. I wouldn’t be surprised if he brought them. “
I grabbed Ava’s arm and looked into her perturbed pupils.
“Breann and Gavin at the back near a dumpster. Why do we want to leave? Don’t we want to see what they do for Bruce Nolans.”
Ava put her hands on the bed I had layed, relaxed her shoulders and removed her suit jacket. She rolled up her shirt sleeves and washed her hands.
“The surgery is done. They’re saying it didn’t work, because the robotic heart didn’t take. I don’t believe Dr. Bulas, he’s pathological. Lucas is more metal than man. He lies terribly. They won’t let me take you out of here before Dr. Cluber gets here. Dr. Bulas is claiming ownership of you.”
I closed the partition and grasped both of Ava’s shoulders.
“We traveled for half a day with no sleep and no plan thinking this fake corn making lunatic could help us and now he owns me?”
Ava shot those blue lazers at me, clenched her teeth and hissed her words.
“You did this! You whine and moan about never getting your way, then you do, and now three sets of people who could crush you into blood and license plates are going to screw up my life too!”
She was right. The trip, getting out of the car, texting Breann, and now a prisoner with Ava’s professional future compromised.
“I’m sorry Av. I really am. You said three sets. Bulas and this bunch, Cluber and his, and who else.”
Ava took her jacket draped over my arm. She put it on and smiled awkwardly.
“Gavin has been freaking out. Anson Cluber doesn’t talk to either of us directly and until a few days ago Connor Bulas was a ghost. We went underground. There are people who see what is inside of you and the other five as priceless, yet they have no meglomanical designs of owning the rest of your body. The less you know, the better. They’ll come to us. When I didn’t call Gavin back last night he probably contacted them.”
I felt guilty. Ava telling me her manipulation was a first. We opened the partition and crept behind tables. I opened a door into a grey room with low flourescent light. I saw Bruce Nolans. He was alive. Ava moved in behind me and stared. Bruce was in a bed, strapped to it’s siderails. He looked still, but well. I found myself walking toward him, unafraid of what would happen next. Ava squeezed closer to me.
“Caleb, he may be drugged or disoriented. I mean, he was dead for several hours, medically.”
I stood next to his left side, reaching with my right hand to pull the sheet away from his chest. Someone else entered the room. It felt like a pall was cast.
“He’s alive. He’s just not responding to some arbitrary commands. Dr. Bulas screwed up. I should have thought out all my options. I just wanted to save him.”
I turned to see Lucas walking slowly to the bed. There was no emotion is his face or body, but his voice was resigned.
“Ava, can you get us out of here? Somewhere, neutral, with medical capability?”
Ava didn’t hesitate.
“Breann Lucos and Gavin Todd are outside. I have a car. Caleb said Breann drove. If we can find an airport with a 10 person transport, I can get us to Atlanta. I have privileges at three different hospitals. But, Gavin and I will want to run things out way. You guys need physicians.”
Lucas’s facial muscles didn’t move. He winced slightly from his wound earlier. He parted us and stood over Bruce, undoing the restraints. He whispered in Bruce’s ear as he rose. Ava began examining Bruce’s scars and taking his vitals.
“His heart is pulseless. Where’s the battery hum, at least?”
Lucas opened his shirt and took the end of Ava’s stethoscope to his chest. Ava’s eyes became shocked orbs of royal.
“Neither Bruce, nor I have a pulse. It is not a beat, it is an energy that never dies; Bruce and I are complete robot-human hybrids.”
Bruce moved to end of the bed. He was slow and withdrawn. If something was off with Lucas, something was completely missing with Bruce. I reached out to shake his hand, he gripped mine with brute force and spoke.
“I want to go home”.
I shook my head in agreement and pointed to the door. He followed Lucas, who followed Ava, who grabbed my arm and her bag and led me the back of the building. I opened the large metal door with an alarm attached and ran to a green dumpter, about 50 feet away. Gavin and Breann met us halfway. All 6 of us started running at the SUVs Breann and Gavin parked. I turned to Lucas.
“You sure you want to do this?”
Lucas opened the door to Gavin’s car and stared through me.
“Bulas did something to Bruce’s brain function. I don’t believe in him or Cluber. It’s time we got our lives back.”
“He”ll come for us. “
When Lucas Bonner spoke, he was colder than the November North Dakota wind.
“Caleb, Breann, Bruce, and I; Connor Bulas owns us. Bruce wants to go home. I told his family I would deliver him, dead or alive. So, we need to drive now.”
I looked at Breann and Gavin, who had been outside surveying the compound for over two hours. Gavin pointed at a large silo in the middle of the land, about 300 yards away.
“There’s security everywhere but that silo. It’s a drive thru type. If we can make it there, close the doors, we can buy a few minutes head start to the highway.”
Breann grabbed my hand. Her small fingers were like icicles. She leaned into my left ear. Her soft, white skin made me jumo because of it’s startling coldness.
“I think we should split up. Put you and I with Gavin and stick Lucas and Bruce with Ava. Gavin all business and Ava might rethink making you her robot lover for life after spending time with those two freaks.”
Ava stared at Breann’s lips as she whispered to me. Gavin put everyone’s belongings into the back of his gray Ford Expedition. Ava stepped toward me and motioned me to join her inside the SUV. She acted like Ava always did and took over the moment.
“We have no time to talk. Everyone get in Gavin’s car and let’s get to that grainhouse silo. Once we get there and get those doors closed we’ll rethink the plan.”
Breann and Ava glared at each other. I was getting sick of their rivalry. Gavin and Lucas were making the most sense. I climbed into the front with Gavin. The other four piled, uncomfortably, in the back seat. As Gavin started the car, several men armed with stun guns and radio head seats ran from the building. Gavin pushed the gas pedal down Ava leaned into the front seat.
“Caleb, Gavin and I have a contact in Minot. They won’t send for us. We have to go to them. If we can make it to the Air Force base by dark, we can get all four of you medical attention. That will gain get leverage on Doctors Anson Cluber and Connor Bulas.”