The caretaker stirred when he heard the crunch of tires on gravel. There was barely any light left in the sky, and he had just made coffee and was reluctant to get up. But his curiosity got the better of him. Visitors to Alexandria seldom ventured into the cemetery at Ivy Hill; the historic town on the Potomac had a brace of other, more colorful attractions and amusements to offer the living. As for the locals, not many came out on a weekday; fewer still on a late afternoon when the April rains lashed the sky.
Peering through his gatehouse window, the caretaker saw a man get out of an ordinary-looking sedan. Government? He guessed that his visitor was in his early forties, tall and very fit. Dressed for the weather, he had on a waterproof jacket, dark pants, and workman's boots.
The caretaker watched the way the man stepped away from the car and looked around, taking in his surroundings. Not government-military. He opened the door and came out under the overhang, observing how his visitor stood there, gazing through the gates of the cemetery, oblivious to the rain matting his dark hair.
Maybe this is his first trip back, the caretaker thought. They were all hesitant their first time, loath to enter a place associated with pain, grief, and loss. He looked at the man's left hand and saw no ring. A widower? He tried to remember if a young woman had been interred recently.
The voice startled the caretaker. It was gentle for such a big man, and soft, as if he'd thrown the salutation like a ventriloquist.
&'grave;Howdy. If you're fixin' to visit, I got an umbrella I can let you have.''
&'grave;I'd appreciate that, thank you,'' the man said, but he didn't move.
The caretaker reached around the corner into a stand made from an old watering can. He gripped the handle of the umbrella and stepped toward the man, taking in his visitor's high-planed face and startling navy blue eyes.
&'grave;Name's Barnes. I'm the caretaker. If you tell me who you're visiting, I can save you wandering around in this mess.''
&'grave;Russell, you say? Doesn't ring a bell. Let me look it up. Won't take but a minute.''
&'grave;Don't bother. I can find my way.''
&'grave;I still gotta have you sign the visitors' book.''
The man unfurled the umbrella. &'grave;Jon Smith. Dr. Jon Smith. I know where to find her. Thank you.''
The caretaker thought he detected a break in the man's voice. He raised his arm, about to call after him, but the man was already walking away, his strides long and smooth, like a soldier's, until he disappeared into the gray sheets of rain.
The caretaker stared after him. Something cold and sharp danced along his spine, made him shudder. Stepping back into the gatehouse, he closed the door and bolted it firmly.
From his desk, he removed the visitors' ledger, opened it to today's date, and carefully entered both the man's name and the time he had arrived. Then, on impulse, he turned to the back of the ledger, where the interred were listed in alphabetical order.
Russell...Sophia Russell. Here she is: row 17, plot 12. Put into the ground...exactly one year ago!
Among the three mourners who'd signed the register was Jon Smith, M.D.
So why didn't you bring flowers?
Smith was grateful for the rain as he walked along the road that wended its way through Ivy Hill. It was like a shroud, strung across memories that still had the power to cut and burn, memories that had been his omnipresent companions this past year, whispering to him in the night, mocking his tears, forcing him to relive that terrible moment over and over again.
He sees the cold white room in the hospital at the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Maryland. He is watching Sophia, his love, his wife-to-be, writhing under the oxygen tent, gasping for breath. He stands, only inches away, yet powerless to help her. His screams at the medical staff echo off the walls and return to mock him. They don't know what's wrong with her. They, too, are powerless.
Suddenly she cries outa sound Smith still hears in his nightmares, and prays never to hear again. Her spine, bent like a bow, arches to an impossible angle; sweat pours off her as if to rid her body of the toxin. Her face is bright with fever. For an instant she is frozen like that. Then she collapses. Blood pours out of her nose and throat. From deep within comes the death rattle, followed by a gentle sigh, as her soul, free at last, escapes its tortured confines....
Smith shivered and looked around quickly. He didn't realize that he had stopped walking. The rain continued to drum on the umbrella, but it seemed to fall in slow motion. He thought he could hear every drop as it spattered off the nylon.
He wasn't sure how long he stood there, like an abandoned, forgotten statue, or what finally made him take a step. He didn't know how he came to be on the path that led to her grave or how he found himself standing in front of it.
NOW IN THE SHELTER OF THE LORD
Smith leaned forward and ran his fingertips across the smooth top of the pink-and-white granite headstone.
&'grave;I should have come more often, I know,'' he whispered. &'grave;But I couldn't bring myself to do it. I thought that if I came here, I would have to admit that I've lost you forever. I couldn't do that...
&'grave;'The Hades Project.' That's what they called it, Sophia, the terror that took you away from me. You never saw the faces of the men who were involved; God spared you that. But I want you to know that they have paid for their crimes.
&'grave;I had my taste of revenge, my darling, and I believed that it would bring me peace. But it did not. For months I have been asking myself how I might earn that serenity; in the end, the answer was always the same.''
From his jacket pocket, Smith took out a small jeweler's box. Opening the lid, he stared at a six-carat, marquis-cut diamond in a platinum setting that he had picked out at Van Cleef & Arpel in London. It was the wedding ring he had intended to slip on the finger of the woman who would have become his wife.
Smith crouched and pushed the ring into the soft earth at the base of the headstone.
&'grave;I love you, Sophia. I will always love you. Your heart is still the light of my life. But it is time for me to move on. I don't know where I'll go or how I'll get there. But I must go.''
Smith brought his fingertips to his lips, then touched the cold stone.
&'grave;May God bless you and look after you always.''
He picked up the umbrella and took a step back, staring at the headstone as though imprinting its image in his mind for all time. Then he heard the soft footfall behind him and turned f0around fast.
The woman holding the black umbrella was in her mid-thirties, tall, with brilliant red hair pulled back in a ponytail. A spray of freckles dotted her nose and high cheekbones. Her eyes, green like reef waters, widened when she saw Smith.
&'grave;Jon? Jon Smith?''
Megan Olson walked up quickly, took Smith's arm and squeezed it.
&'grave;Is it really you? My God, it's been...''
&'grave;A long time.''
Megan looked past him at Sophia's grave. &'grave;I'm so sorry, Jon. I didn't know that anyone would be here. I didn't mean to intrude.''
&'grave;It's all right. I did what I came to do.''
&'grave;I guess we're both here for the same reason,'' she said softly.
She drew him under the shelter of a massive oak and looked at him keenly. The lines and creases on his face were deeper than she remembered, and there was a host of new ones. She could only imagine the kind of year Jon Smith had endured.
&'grave;I'm sorry for your loss, Jon,'' she said. &'grave;I wish I could have told you that sooner.'' She hesitated. &'grave;I wish I had been here when you needed someone.''
&'grave;I tried calling but you were away,'' he replied. &'grave;The job...''
Megan nodded ruefully. &'grave;I was away,'' she said vaguely.
Sophia Russell and Megan Olson had both grown up in Santa Barbara, had gone to school there, then on to UCLA. After college, their paths had diverged. Sophia had gone to complete her Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology and had joined USAMRIID. After receiving her master's in biochemistry, Megan had accepted a position at the National Institutes of Health. But after only a three-year tenure she had switched to the medical research division of the World Health Organization. Sophia had received postcards from all over the world and had pasted them in a scrapbook as a way to keep track of her globe-trotting friend. Now, without warning, Megan was back.
&'grave;NASA,'' Megan said, answering Smith's unspoken question. &'grave;I got tired of the Gypsy life, applied to the space-shuttle candidate school, and was accepted. Now I'm first alternate on the next space mission.''
Smith couldn't hide his amazement. &'grave;Sophia always said she never knew what to expect from you. Congratulations.''
Megan smiled wanly. &'grave;Thanks. I guess none of us knows what we can expect. Are you still with the army, at USAMRIID?''
&'grave;I'm at loose ends,'' Smith replied. It wasn't the whole truth but close enough. He changed the subject. &'grave;Are you going to be in Washington for a while? Might give us a chance to catch up.''
Megan shook her head. &'grave;I'd love to. But I have to go back to Houston tonight. But I don't want to lose touch with you, Jon. Are you still living out in Thurmont?''
&'grave;No, I sold the place. Too many memories.''
On the back of a card he jotted down his address in Bethesda, along with a phone number that he was actually listed under.
Handing her the card, he said, &'grave;Don't be a stranger.''
&'grave;I won't,'' Megan replied. &'grave;Look after yourself, Jon.''
&'grave;You too. It was good to see you, Megan. Good luck on the mission.''
She watched him walk out of the overhang and disappear into the drizzle.
&'grave;I'm at loose ends....''
Megan had never thought of Smith as a man without purpose or direction. She was still wondering about his cryptic comment as she walked over to Sophia's grave, the rain drumming on her umbrella.
Copyright 2001 by Myn Pyn LLC