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Alex Harrison was only a shade past ten when his father and his fiancé moved into the house by the cove. It was their third move in as many years and each time his ability to fit in with other kids his age slowly dwindled until it had now all but disappeared. Solitary by nature, Alex found he enjoyed being by himself. Instead of football or other after school activities, Alex preferred the comfort of his own room, reading books or drawing on the sketch pad his mother had given him for Christmas a few years ago, before the cancer took her away from them.
Alex had an imagination that was unmatched, that's what his mother used to say anyway, and that enabled him to draw the pictures his mind created while reading–pictures of pirates on the high seas seeking buried treasure, of strange worlds where swords and magic ruled, or two of his favorites, dragons and ghosts. Sometimes after reading one of his books, Alex would go outside and play with the imaginary creatures he'd created on paper, battling against fierce monsters or digging for buried treasure on haunted pirate islands. By using his imagination, Alex could act out the colossal battles he read about between the cruel pirates and the rich merchant ships carrying gold and jewels across the ocean from Spain. Most other times he could be found sitting in front of the television, his life-long babysitter. From TV Alex learned a lot about what real pirates looked like and where real ghosts were said to haunt. He had never seen a real ghost, dragon, or pirate, but he imagined they lived only in his mind anyway. His mother had always told him it was sometimes difficult to determine what wasreal and what was only in your head, especially if you had a strong imagination. Alex had loved her very much and sometimes could still feel her hands smoothing his forehead before he fell asleep, reassuring him that no matter what happened in his mind, he would always be safe because she was nearby.
Her battle had been quick and painless, one of the blessings of detecting the cancer too late. It had nearly eaten through her body before the doctors had found it. There was nothing that could be done to save her, and in the end death was actually merciful. Alex went to the hospital one day and that was it, his mother was dead. He had expected something more. He didn't know what, but perhaps a scene like on television with doctors and nurses scurrying around trying to save her. Instead, Alex only saw a priest and many machines that were slowly being turned off. He missed her horribly. A small part of his childhood had died that day, and a big part of his innocence. He watched his father cry like a baby when they turned off the last machine, an event a boy never forgets–the first time he watches his father cry. Alex realized then the pain of life can make even the most powerful person crumble before it. Now it had shown an eight year old boy tears didn't stain only the cheeks of children. All that was two years removed; now they had moved on, both emotionally and physically. They had left two other towns before settling here, hoping this would be the place that finally allowed them the peace and comfort they needed.
His father became engaged a year after the funeral–a move Alex didn't approve of until his soon to be stepmom, Jennifer, sat him down before she moved in and spoke plainly with him, not as an adult speaking to a child, but as one adult speaking to another. She told Alex something he wanted desperately to hear, something he needed to hear. Jennifer told him she loved him and his father more than she could ever express and wanted them, all of them, to be happy, to be a family. She also said she didn't expect Alex to call her "Mom" if he didn't want to because that would be unfair to him. She was, in her own words, "just Jennifer." Alex loved her too, but the constant moving of the past year had worn everyone's nerves down to the breaking point and one night it came to a head.
"At least they won't move away on me," Alex shouted at them the night before they were moving to Oceanview, referring to the images that flickered past on the TV screen. Smiling faces emanated from a small box, dancing back and forth and glowing with a hypnotizing light. He immediately regretted saying it, and regretted even more not apologizing. But everyone felt the pressure as much as Alex did, so it went unpunished. One thing Jennifer was strict about, however, was what books he could and couldn't read–something he didn't understand as his dad would let him watch whatever he wanted to on television. Alex often wondered if he would ever understand the grown-up mind.
Alex was a frail child, thin and short for his age, making him the perfect target for bullies. He had light brown hair that was always in need of a cut and flopped loosely over his ears, which stuck out awkwardly like a set of open car doors. His appearance not only made him a target for beatings, but also ensured he was the last one picked for anything athletic, which angered his father who was always in peak physical condition. Alex had no real desire to be an athlete, though; he would rather be a king or a writer or maybe even an actor on television. Constantly being beaten up, however, wasn't something that helped his fragile ego to develop. It didn't matter what town they were in–Union, Sarasota, and now Oceanview–the bullies would still take his lunch money, but only after subjecting him to the mental and physical horrors only a ten year old boy new to town could know.
To that end, Alex dreaded tomorrow, Wednesday, his first day in the new school. Jennifer had bought him another new set of "first day" clothes, his third set in the past twelve months. She smiled proudly at him while adjusting the collar of his shirt as he stood outside waiting for the big yellow school bus that would whisk him away to Oceanview Elementary School. In the back of his mind Alex wondered if the local bully would wait until lunchtime to get him, or if he would come after him right away so that Alex knew who was in charge. Little things like that always bothered him. Just then, his father came running down the stairs.
"Jen, honey, do you know where the movers put the box with my new suit in it? I wanted to wear it today." His father peered out the front door of the house at her.
The house was a beautiful two-level structure with white vinyl siding and a large sliding glass window that lead to a balcony in the rear on the second floor overlooking the tiny cove snugly tucked in there. There was also a large porch that wound its way around the side to the back of the house, where it opened up a little bit to give them a view of the spectacular sunsets that Andy, his father, hoped they all could share. The front of the house was plain looking except for the front door, which was large and intricately carved with tiny gothic designs Jennifer had requested. His dad told Alex with a wink that Jennifer said it would bring them good luck. She could be eccentric sometimes, but that was her way. The windows were framed neatly with freshly painted black shutters, and the tiny walkway leading to the front door was made up of several dull colored flagstones. Everything was new and completely paid for with the exception of the driveway, which was cracked with wear from the cement trucks and contractor's vehicles that had driven over it. But his father had already hired someone to come in and replace it. By the end of the week everything would be new, a new house and a fresh start for everyone.
Alex's father, Andrew Harrison, was always prepared and always looking ahead; he was a man who hated being caught off-guard. Alex guessed that that was why his mother's sudden death had unraveled his world the way it did. Alex was sure that his father sought to find meaning in the loss, but even more than that, in the loss of control. His dad always needed to have answers. It was just the way he thought, and it was hard to fault him for it. Alex admired him because he was possessed of a brilliant mind, but sometimes, as his father was fond of saying, "with great wisdom there can come a great curse." In his dad's case, the curse had been that he could do nothing to save his mom. Even with his vast knowledge and lifelong work with bacteria and viruses, his father was as powerless as Alex himself was to save his mother or even ease her suffering.
* * * *
Andrew Harrison was finally returning to his old self, mostly due to Jennifer's love and counseling. She was a psychiatrist, albeit a child one, but just having someone to talk to had been enough to start the healing process for him. When he began dealing with the real estate brokers and contractors, Andrew sounded more like his old self than he had in a long time. Whether he was trying to impress Jennifer or simply showing off how charming and persuasive he could be when he wanted to, Andrew began negotiating for the acre of land that sat above the murky cove in Oceanview. From the very beginning, he made sure he was in control, rejecting the offered sale price several times before making an offer of his own to the broker based on what he thought was fair. After a day's deliberation, the broker agreed.
Andrew was a stubborn man at times, hard even, but he knew enough about the way the world worked to be that way. He served his country when his number was called in Vietnam and took pride in his work. He was the perfect, All-American, self-made man, and he knew it. Andrew wasn't without his flaws though, cockiness being a prominent problem early on in life. But after watching his wife die in his arms with him powerless to do anything but wish her safe passage to Heaven, he had mellowed out considerably. Not to mention the fact that Jennifer wouldn't tolerate him if he acted that way. In his mind a flaw was a weakness, and a weakness could be exposed–that was what the Army had taught him from day one in boot camp, although his war effort was spent more or less in a laboratory. Andrew was recognized early on by his superiors as being an extremely smart and talented man, a graduate of Brown with a degree in biological engineering and an IQ in the upper genius level. However, because of the career path he chose, as well as some decisions he had made long ago, his jobs were also one of the reasons they were constantly moving around.
Andrew had held several jobs in his lifetime, but all in the same field, virology. Simply put, he studied and developed viruses. Sometimes to help, sometimes to hurt, depending on who he was working for. Since Andrew generally worked on a contract basis, the employer could be anybody with enough money to afford him, which meant a lot of government jobs. He didn't mind working for the government. It gave him time to see how far along different sectors were in the battle against cancer, AIDS, and other lethal diseases. After dealing with the pain that only the loss of a spouse can create–the numbing shock of not sharing your bed with the same person any longer, of not feeling the same warm body there to comfort you night after night–he decided to involve himself in a worthwhile project, one he had begun in his spare time back in Vietnam, a vaccine for cancer. Even then he knew it wouldn't work, it was considered madness to try and inoculate someone by injecting them with cancer. In many circles it still was. Andrew also knew that his knowledge, no matter how vast, nor his resolve, no matter how strong, could never wipe out all the different kinds of cancer that existed. But he wanted to make a difference and saw this as one way he could help others like his deceased wife Marcie. Currently, however, he was employed in a highly sensitive zone, working for the government engineering new strains of bacteria for the military. They, in turn, would use his strains to develop and test biological weapons. His days were long and he had just married, which meant that any hopes of trying to find the cure for cancer would have to wait until Andrew had more free time.
Andrew remembered one night when Alex had asked him what he did. The explanation he gave his son was probably even more puzzling to him than it was to Alex. How did you explain to a ten-year-old what the term "biological warfare" meant? How could you tell a child that the viruses you created might someday wipe out a million people in some small country halfway around the world? What Andrew did stress to him though was that what he did was only because it was his job and neither he nor Jennifer agreed with the use of any weapons, especially the ones he created. Alex had nodded even though he was sure the boy had no idea what he meant, although he immediately raced over to their set of encyclopedias to check it out for himself. Alex was a smart boy; hopefully smart enough to avoid the line of work Andrew had got trapped in.
"I think we put it in the car with us, didn't we?" Jennifer called over her shoulder, trying desperately to keep the nervousness in her voice in check.
"I can't remember. Did we?" Andrew asked.
"I think so, Andy. Check one of the travel bags. It's probably in one of those."
"Okay, but I still think we put it in one of the boxes."
* * * *
Jennifer shook her head as Andrew shut the front door to go foraging for his new suit. She wasn't happy about moving again and she knew Alex could tell. Alex let her finish fixing his shirt and then she leaned over and pretended to straighten up her outfit as she smiled down at him. She was dressed very professionally in a short tan skirt with a dark blazer covering the white blouse she wore underneath. She was going to be working in the elementary school as the on-site psychiatrist, which meant she could keep an eye on him. Since the school was broken up into different branches, she wouldn't be able to see him much during the day, which she was nervous about.
The school was divided up by grade. Kindergarten on one side, grades one through three on another, four and five on yet another, and the final wing of the building, where Alex would be, housed grades six through eight. He had several advanced classes on his schedule, which would inevitably bring him into contact with some of the older students, something he dreaded. Andrew though, was insistent on him taking the best science classes he could, not just because he excelled in them, but because he wanted him to get a better understanding of not only what he did for work, but also of how things worked in the world. As far as Alex was concerned, it only gave more people a chance to see him and beat him up.
Copyright © 2004 by M.J. Konevich