by M.D. Bloemker
(previously published in Crazy Quilt #3)
Jonathan MacKensie greeted his traveling companionís casual announcement that heíd already sent their bags ahead to the airport with a grumble about unnecessary expenses, and no other comment. So the real argument didnít begin until the hotel doorman closed their cab door, and Edgar Benedek overrode Jonathanís instructions to the driver. "Book Barn, 20th and Forest. And thereís an extra twenty in it for you if you make it in ten minutes."
He settled back as the cab dove into traffic, envisioning the look that he knew was coming over his seatmateís face, anticipating to the second when the man would recover his voice and begin to sputter. "Benedek, our plane leaves in one hour."
"Correction. Our plane leaves in five hours. I switched us to a later flight."
"You...you switched...without consulting me?"
"No time, last minute favor, I knew you wouldnít mind," he said breezily. "My publisherís nieceís husbandís cousin owns this book store, see, and he found out I was going to be in town for this hoodoo convention, and naturally with my new book just out, it just seemed like a good idea and the poor guy could really use the business...."
"Without consulting me?"
"Relax, okay? Itís for a good cause," Benny soothed.
"Your bank account?" Jonathan snorted.
"And my agentís, and my publisherís, not to mention...."
"Your publisherís nieceís whomever, yes," he growled, glaring out the window.
"Just doing my part to keep us all off the welfare lines," Benny grinned, getting an unintelligible, vaguely hostile grunt in response.
"The International Symposium for the Scientific Investigation of Paranormal Phenomena was hardly a Ďhoodoo conventioní," Jonathan muttered after a strained silence. Still staring out the cab window, he missed the smile with which Benny greeted the change of subject and the knowledge that MacKensie had calmed down a lot faster than heíd anticipated. "No thanks to you, of course. Why did you have to ask Dr. Opdyke if heíd ever taken into the consideration the metaphysical dynamics of paranormal communications illustrated so convincingly in that classic study of the genre, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir?í"
"Because he needed to loosen up," Benny laughed at Jonathanís acute embarrassment and indignation as well as the memory of the moment. "Come on, admit it, you thought it was pretty funny at the time. No, no, admit it, come on...."
By the time heíd coaxed the barest hint of the smile that MacKensie struggled to suppress, the cab pulled up to a storefront. "Youíre missing the point, as usual," Jonathan continued as he paid the cabby and reluctantly added another twenty at the urging of Bennyís raised eyebrow. "You insisted on being allowed to accompany me to this symposium, at the Instituteís expense, naturally, and then you spent the entire weekend attempting to make fools out of the most learned men and women in the countryóthe world!"
"And I embarrassed you, thatís the real problem, isnít it?"
"Yes. No! Benedek, thatís not the point." He pulled the man to a halt by grabbing his arm, holding up his other hand in a silent plea to be heard and carefully listened to. "When Dr. Moorhouse established the Georgetown Institute Paranormal Research Unit, it was for the express purpose of investigating paranormal phenomena scientifically. That means objectively, without prejudice, without preconceived notions, without sideshow theatrics and, most assuredly, without dollar signs dancing in your eyes. Now, you managed somehow to insinuate yourself into an association with the Institute and the PRU, and yes, Iím forced to admit that youíve made some invaluable contributions along the way...."
"Donít choke on it, Jonny," Benny laughed at the difficulty with which the other man got out the words, earning him a sour look in return.
"Itís got to stop."
"Okay, Iíll bite," Benny nodded amiably. "Whatís got to stop?"
"This attitude, this...this life-is-a-lark, joke-a-minute shtick of yours."
"What, you want me to turn into you, is that it?"
"What I want is for you to start taking something in your life seriously, and you can start with those things in your life that happen to involve me, like the PRU. I want you to stop treating it, and me, as a source of personal amusement." He finally stopped sneaking glances out of the corner of his eyes and turned to stare at the store window, in which a huge photo of Edgar Benedek hung next to a blow-up of a garish book cover. "And as a source of revenue! Wait a minute...."
Benny followed him as he stalked over to the window. "Last minute favor?" he growled menacingly as he gestured at the display, evidence of considerably more advance planning than Benny obviously wanted him to believe.
With an easy laugh, Benny beckoned Jonathan to follow him into the store, ignoring his dark mutters as he approached the front counter. The bespectacled young man behind the register looked up, his face brightening in recognition. Snagging a book displayed prominently on the desk, he double-checked the photo on the back cover. "Edgar Benedek, right? Man, I have always wanted to meet you, I couldnít believe it when Ted said you were coming to town just for this signing...."
"Just for this signing?" Jonathan repeated ominously as the young man continued to enthuse, reaching across the counter to pump Bennyís hand. Benny flashed Jonathan an easy smile and a shrug, then ignored him in the pleasant chaos that followed. The youth, who in his excitement managed to let it be known four times that his name was Freddy and that he would do anything, immediately and without question, Edgar Benedek asked him to do, encouraged a round of cheers and applause from the crowd already lined up at the table to which he escorted Benny. The store owner and his wife appeared, eliciting a round of introductions that Jonathan could not move fast enough to avoid. Uneasily, he endured the attention, relieved when all three immediately returned to catering to Bennyís every whim.
As the store owner issued final instructions to Freddy and two other clerks charged with keeping order, Jonathan reached over to pick up one of the books that someone had artfully piled on either end of the signing table. "Another one of your scholarly treatises on the paranormal, no doubt. And what high-minded subjects have you covered this time? Your dogged search for the truth behind the stories of Bigfootís wild Vegas weekend? Your thorough, in-depth investigation of Elvis sightings in Tahiti?" His derisive snort cut short as he flipped open the book and glanced at the inside dust cover. "Actual cases from the files of the Washington Institute Paranormal Research...Benedek!"
"Donít worry, donít worry, I changed all the names," he soothed, unperturbed.
Wild-eyed, Jonathan paged frantically through the book. "Kensey? Jack Kensey? You call this changing a name? Do you actually think that people arenít going to know who this is?"
"No, what I actually think is that people arenít going to care," he replied with a chuckle. "Lighten up, Jack. Do you know how many people would kill to get a mention in one of my books?"
Jonathan stared at an index listing, color draining from his face as he totaled the page count next to ĎKensey, Jackí. "Tell me you didnít mention Dr. Moorhouse," he begged.
"Ah...check under ĎD.í" At Jonathanís puzzled look, he grinned. "For ĎDragoní, natch."
He laughed as Jonathan flipped back a few pages, and turned his attention back to Freddy, who announced that they were ready to begin. The first few eager fans darted curious glances at the man standing behind their favorite author, who stared aghast at an open book and muttered, "Julia Hauser? Julia Hauser? Iím dead. Thatís all there is to it. Iím dead and buried."
"Hey, Jack, make yourself useful, okay?"
Jonathanís head snapped up, eyes widening in dread at the thought that someone in the long line snaking throughout the store would connect the Jack Kensey in the book with the ĎJackí whom Benedek had just cheerfully hailed. When he focused back on Benny, it was to see the man turned in his chair toward him, one arm around the waist of a smiling young woman perched on his knees, and a camera held up in his other hand. "Come on, for the little lady, eh?"
He acceded grudgingly, realizing too late that his chance for escape, graceful or otherwise, was gone. One photo op turned into two, then another, and then another. Before he knew it, dozens of cameras were being shoved into his hands by complete strangers with too much excitement dancing in their eyes for him to even consider denying them. He even managed to hold his tongue and produce a smile for the few people who made breezy remarks about Edgar Benedek providing his own photographer, but not without silently promising to make Benny pay for the indignity.
A promise that fell by the wayside, as Benny noted with satisfaction, long about the third or fourth winsome young woman who lingered over explaining the intricacies of her particular camera to the attentive professor, even after the photograph had been taken and the line moved along, and despite the fact that Jonathan had already handled that particular model of camera at least three or four times in the last half hour. Benny managed to catch the warm smile with which Jonathan bade farewell to his latest admirer, and made sure that Jonathan knew he saw it, putting to rest once and for all any question of whether MacKensie would dare protest that his time had been utterly and thoroughly wasted.
In short order, though, Jonathanís surly mood returned. The line had thinned out by then, populated mostly by people returning with copies of Bennyís earlier books whoíd already enjoyed a photo op, and none of MacKensieís new friends. Disgruntled, Jonathan flopped down into a chair that Freddy had provided for him, pushed far enough away from the table to maintain a respectable distance. Boredom took its toll within less than a minute. With a rude snort meant to inform Benedek that he was only doing so in order to protect his own interests, he picked up one of the few remaining copies of the new book from the signing table, and ceremoniously opened to the first page.
Another hour passed, with Benny involving himself thoroughly with the steady but slower trickle of fans who came to pay him homage, and not a sound other than turning pages from the man seated behind him. When Freddy came to officially shut down the table, Jonathanís nose was still buried deep in the book, leaving Benny plenty of time to deal graciously with a few stragglers. In fact, it took Benedek three tries to rouse the man with the announcement that they were free to continue on to the airport.
"Shall I ring that up for you?" Freddy offered with a grin as Jonathan tried to hand the book back to him. "You looked like you were really deep into it, man.
As Jonathan, flustered, tried to deny everything, Benny took the book from Freddyís hand and gave it back to MacKensie. "My compliments," he grinned, enjoying the manís discomfiture. "Iíll autograph it for you personally on the plane home. Put that one on my publisherís tab, okay, Fred? Thanks."
Regaining his composure, Jonathan tucked the book under his arm. "I must admit," he said with some difficulty. "It...wasnít what I was expecting."
Benny gave him a knowing grin as he packed a few mementos, pressed upon him by adoring fans, away in his duffle bag. "Humor me. Elaborate fully."
Jonathan drew a deep breath, summoning dignity. "Iím...impressed."
Benny straightened slowly, staring at Jonathan until the man squirmed. "What was that word again?"
MacKensie favored him with a long, irritated look in return. "If youíre going to give me a hard time about this, forget I said anything," he sniffed, dropping the book into Bennyís open duffle.
"No, no, wait, come on, say it again!"
In the middle of the argument that ensued with Jonathanís steadfast refusal to bend to Bennyís pleas, came a quiet, hopeful, "Excuse me?"
The feminine voice caused them both to turn. A woman stood in front of the table, nervous fingers patting back her dark, wind-blown hair. Her other hand protectively clutched the shoulder of a young girl at her side, whose freckled face, luminously pale under a crown of straight black hair, blossomed into a bright smile. "I hope weíre not too late," the woman said, meekly apologetic. "I didnít realize it would take so long to get here, I mean, Iíve never been this far north before and someone told me it would only take a few hours, but itís really more like five, and, oh...." Her face fell as she read the smaller print on the sign posted near the table. "We are too late, arenít we? Oh, no. Mindy, Iím so sorry, honey...."
"Nonsense," Benny proclaimed expansively, sliding back into the chair behind the table as though heíd only risen to stretch his muscles. "Who lives and breathes by the clock anyway, eh?"
"The airlines, for one," Jonathan sighed, sinking back into his own chair.
Immensely relieved, the woman drew a deep breath before continuing. "This is my daughter, Mindy. She is, without a doubt, your biggest fan. She has all your books, paper and hardcover. The first book she ever read, I am not kidding, was ĎEurope On Five Ghosts A Day.í"
"Yeah?" Benny preened. "That oneís my personal favorite, you know. Your daughter has obviously inherited exquisite taste."
"When she heard that you were going to be signing here, she begged me to bring her. Itís such a long trip, but...." Her excitement faded abruptly, a troubled look spreading across her face. "I couldnít say no. It was...so important to her that she get to see you."
"Iím flattered," Benny grinned, focusing on the little girl who had quietly moved forward to stand directly in front of him across the table. She had remained silent, a quiet smile fixed on her face as she gazed at him intently with clear green eyes. "Itís a genuine honor to finally meet my biggest fan," he assured her earnestly, extending his hand.
She accepted the handshake, still staring at him with a curious smile. When she spoke, it was in a small, shy voice. "It's nice to see you again, Benny."
He blinked at her, glancing briefly at the girlís mother when she made an odd sound, like that of breath catching in her throat. "Again? Have we met before?"
"Sure. Only I donít remember too much anymore. It was a big place, with lots of people and they were shouting, but they werenít mad or anything. I think it was a party. Maybe a concert. Lots of people were singing and dancing and you spilled a beer on me and ruined my favorite T-shirt."
"I...spilled...." He froze as a vivid memory overwhelmed him. Bert Limongello, the Bob-Dylan-wannabe from Yonkers, on the steps of the admin building, surrounded by synthesizers, amps and four other seniors recruited straight out of Folk Music Interpretations 401, realizing his dream at the top of his lungs. Hundreds of underclassmen, celebrating the passing of yet another semester, dancing and singing and getting high on life or one of several substances passing freely through the crowd. Heíd spread his arms to give thanks to the Biology 101 gods above for granting him the minor miracle of a passing grade, and someone slapped a cold, open beer can into his hand. Reflexes had jerked his hand back, and the contents of the can went flying. A shriek near his ear helped him locate his unfortunate victim, and when he turned, it was to stare into a pair of the most beautiful, as well as the angriest, brown eyes he had ever seen in his life. Overwhelmed, he kept staring, not even reacting as the girl reached out....
"....grabbed the can and threw the rest of it on you," Mindy concluded with another shy smile.
Benny continued to stare at her for a moment, then looked up at the girlís mother. The woman withdrew her hand from Mindyís shoulder, pressing her fingers tightly against her mouth as she looked down, brow furrowed in deep distress, at her daughter. No chagrin, no embarrassment, no surprise whatsoever. Only a sense of raw helplessness as she, obviously not for the first time, saw something happening to her daughter that had nothing to do with her daughter, and which she could do absolutely nothing about.
When he looked at Mindy again, it was to see the little girl waiting patiently for him to say something. It took a moment for him to find enough voice and presence of mind to do so. "How old are you, honey?"
"Nine," she replied solemnly. "Iíll be ten in May." A frown appeared on her face when he paused, fighting another constriction in his throat that impaired his ability to speak. "You remember that, donít you? You almost got arrested...I think."
Only because he'd insisted on a sobriety test, proving once and for all to the disgruntled policeman that the reek of beer in his car was purely external. By that time, heíd already persuaded his victim to forgive him, and sheíd even allowed him to take her home in his beat-up VW....
"I...remember," he cleared his throat carefully. "But, Mindy, honey, I was....what youíre remembering, it happened a long time ago. A real long time ago. You...you werenít even born when all that happened...."
"I know," she said quietly.
Nine. Iíll be ten in May. Ten years ago would make her birth year 1976...minus nine months would be September....
September 14, 1975.
It hit him like a freight train at full throttle, and only a tight grip on the table edge kept him from falling over under the impact. For a time, all he could do was stare at her earnest face, searching in vain for a sign that this was some sort of elaborate joke. He raised his head, silently seeking an answer from the girlís mother. But the woman had shut her eyes, and had gone very still, lips pressed together, one hand curled in a fist so tight that her knuckles showed white under her chin. Her pain was so palpable that Benny felt it even past the cold wave of shock washing over him. This was no joke to her. This was, obviously, something sheíd been fearing for a long time, had hoped in vain would not really happen and now could only try to shut it out even as it unfolded, out of her control.
All he found on Jonathanís face was honest bewilderment, as well as an obvious struggle to hold his silence and wait for an answer instead of demanding one. For that, Benny noted vaguely, he owed him.
It was up to him to break the silence, and he did with an effort that strained his voice. "Do you think that I could talk to your daughter for a few minutesóprivately?"
Her eyes opened, bleak with despair, as though watching her worst fears materialize right in front of her. She started to shake her head, but Mindy stopped her, gaining her attention by tugging on her coat sleeve. "Please, Mommy? Please?"
It was apparent that she still wanted to say no, probably at the top of her lungs, grab her daughter and flee, but the pleading look in the childís eyes wouldnít let her. Her shoulders sagged in defeat. "Okay, sweetheart," she agreed, a hoarse whisper. "Just for a few minutes."
To his credit as well as to Bennyís vast relief, Jonathan beckoned the woman to accompany him as he moved away from the table. At Benedekís waved invitation, Mindy skipped around the table and settled in the chair next to him.
"Your mom says youíre my biggest fan," Benny smiled, falling back on the safety of his usual patter.
"Uh-huh. Iíve got all your books, just like I said I would. Only you said you were gonna write real stories, like Him...Hem...."
"Hemingway," he sighed, closing his eyes briefly.
"But theyíre still really good stories. Mommy has to explain some of them to me, though. I really liked the story about that ghost in a castle in Germany. Did he really play the piano for you?"
"Beethovenís Sonata Pathťtique, second movement," Benny confirmed, grin fading before it had fully formed.
"Mindy...honey...." He carefully folded his trembling hands on the table before him. "These things youíre remembering, about me and.... Are you sure you didnít read this somewhere?"
The light in her eyes dimmed. "Mommy doesnít believe me either," she murmured, lowering her head.
"No, no, itís not that. I believe you, itís just...oh, geez." Lost, he dragged his fingers through his hair. "Do you know what it is that youíre remembering?"
She nodded slowly. "Somebody I used to be, a long time ago. Dr. Prentiss called it...." Hesitating, she mustered concentration to carefully pronounce each syllable. "Reincarnation. Thatís when you die, but then you get to be born again as someone new. Dr. Prentiss says that some people believe that it happens all the time to everybody, but they donít get to remember who they used to be, like I do."
"Mommy took me to talk to her." She looked down again. "She was really nice and everything, but she didnít believe me, either."
Benny wet lips that had suddenly gone dry. "This Dr. Prentiss, she didnít try to hypnotize you or anything, did she?"
She shook her head confidently. "Mommy said no."
"Good for Mommy," he murmured, half-surprised at his own depth of feeling. If sheíd been ten years older, he had no doubt that he himself would be dragging her off to the first person who claimed to know how to wave a watch. A quick montage of bright images passed through his imagination; Carson introducing him and Mindy to a wildly cheering audience, screaming headlines, documentaries, book deals, product endorsements, personal appearances, fame and fortune and....
The enticing lights and noise in his head screeched to abrupt, haunting silence the moment he glanced up to see Mindyís mother accepting a handkerchief from Jonathan MacKensie as he spoke in low tones to the obviously distraught woman.
He shook himself, hard, and deliberately went after another line of thought. "How long have you remembered being this other person?" he ventured gently.
"A long time. I donít really understand a lot of it. I know some songs Mommy said she doesnít remember teaching me, and I keep remembering people she says she doesnít know. I know all this stuff about New York City, and Mrs. Bergmanóshe was my teacher last yearóMrs. Bergman thought I must have lived there and she even gave me extra credit in geography. Itís kinda fun sometimes, but...."
"But?" he prompted when her smile faded and she averted her gaze again.
"It scares Mommy," she admitted in a tiny voice. "And I donít want her to be scared of me."
"Yeah, I can sure understand that," he said, voice stolen by the odd obstruction in his throat. He took a moment to swallow and regain his composure. "What about you? What do you want?"
In reply, she reached for a pouch hung at her side. Opening it, she removed a small book and held it in hands, regarding it in silence. Benny recognized it as a cheap dime-store diary, but what was inscribed on the cover in a childish scrawl stole his breath awayóa name that wasnít Mindyís, enclosed in a lopsided heart along with another name just as familiar to him: his own.
"I used to remember things a lot better," she began slowly, not raising her eyes from the book in her hands. "But itís getting harder. Itís like...thereís no more room in my head, so every time I put something new in, like fractions or geography or something, something old falls out. So I started writing things down, so I wonít forget." She glanced up at him apologetically. "I didnít really remember about you spilling the beer. I mean, I did when I wrote it down here, but I didnít remember it today until I read it in the car when we were driving up here. Itís like...I used to remember things like they happened to me, but now itís like they happened to someone else, like I saw it in a movie or something. Like it used to be me, but it isnít me anymore, not really."
To her questioning look, he nodded his understanding. "Thereís no room for both of you anymore," he told her quietly, ignoring the tug on his heart that begged him not to say it. "And Mindy, honey...thatís how it should be."
She sighed heavily, a reluctant agreement. "But thereís something Iíve been trying to remember for a long time. Itís not something I forgot, itís something I canít figure out, because Iíve never been able remember, and Iíve tried really, really hard. Even when I remembered everything else, I still couldnít remember...."
The growing exasperation in her voice told him that her frustration was deeply rooted; perhaps, he guessed, even the driving force that had caused her to beg her reluctant mother to drive hours out of her way to bring her to him. "What?" he pressed carefully.
"I remember you, and I remember lots of other things," she began, calmly. "And I know that I really, really wanted to tell you something important, but I never got the chance. And I donít know why."
"Do you remember what it is you wanted to tell me?" he said, with growing trepidation.
Her nod was immediate. "Uh-huh. I wanted to say goodbye. But I donít remember why I didnít. Do you?"
He averted his head, unable to look at her or to let her see his reaction. "I donít even know why I wanted to say goodbye," she continued, genuinely perplexed. "Why did I want to do that?"
"There was...something that happened," he said when he got enough of his voice back to attempt an explanation. "You...we...."
She regarded him gravely as he gave up with a ragged sigh of frustration, rubbing tiredly at his forehead. "Was it my fault?" she asked softly.
"No." His head came up with a jerk, eyes wide. "No, Mindy, honey...it wasnít anybodyís fault. Believe me, it was just something that happened, something that...."
...I saw coming and couldnít do anything to stop. I knew, I donít know how I knew, Iíve spent years trying to figure out how I knew, but I still donít know how I knew, and I tried to tell you, I really tried, but it was too late. Youíd already left for the airport. You were already gone.
"It wasnít anybodyís fault," he told her quietly. "It was just...something that happened. Thatís all."
Mindy stared at him expressionlessly for a long time, and he did his best to hold her gaze with confidence and, he hoped, reassurance. Then, rising, she moved to stand in front of him. She pressed her fingertip against her nose, then waggled her finger briefly in front of Bennyís face before laying it softly against the tip of his nose.
Liar, liar, pants on fire.
He yanked her hand away from his face, consciously relaxing his grip before it became too tight and scared her as much as his reaction frightened him. Drawing a breath past the tightness in his chest became a struggle fought in silence as he tried to cover by patting the back of her hand like a fond uncle. "You donít have to remember why," he told her, forcing a reassuring smile. "Itís the way it works, you know, this reincarnation stuff. The ones who remember, like you? They only get to remember the fun things. Anything else...." He tossed off a shrug. "Why would you want to remember anything else, eh?"
His broad grin finally worked on her, coaxing a smile onto her face. "We had lots of fun," she nodded confidently.
"We sure did," he agreed with quiet fervor.
"Iím glad you believe me," she whispered, her voice tinged with a relief that told him that he was probably the first one who ever had listened to her without doubt.
"Iím glad you asked me to," he returned, more truthfully than he could ever hope to explain to her.
"Mommy was so afraid...." She faltered, lowering her head in chagrin for being unable to finish the statement.
Afraid that Iíd laugh at you? Or afraid that I really would believe you? Afraid that Iíd claim the person that you used to be and take her daughter away from her forever? For a moment, he was overwhelmed by the realization of how much courage it had taken for the woman to bring her child here, troubled as she was by unanswerable questions. He could think of only one reason she would have taken such a terrible risk, he could think of only one course of action he could take to show his enormous respect for her decision.
"Mommy doesnít have to be afraid anymore," he told her gently. "Does she?"
She didnít answer immediately, gazing down at the diary she still clutched tightly. He could see the frayed edges, the cracked spine carefully repaired with tape, providing clear evidence of hard use. The evidence of an emotion far exceeding that normally expended on a simple possession was in the way her hand shook as she lifted it, silently offering the book to him.
Hesitating, he searched her solemn eyes. "Are you sure?" he whispered.
Her nod was faint, but certain.
As he accepted the diary from her hand, he felt a brief resistance, but then she stepped away and folded her hands behind her back. "It was very nice to meet you, Mr. Benedek."
"It was a pleasure to meet you, too, Mindy," he said, more easily than he would have thought possible
Freddy had been too efficient, having already cleared away the few remaining copies of his book from the table. But he found a copy at his side, peeking out of his duffle bag. Without hesitation, he picked it up while producing a pen from his front pocket. "This oneís on me, okay?" he smiled at her as he opened to a carefully selected page and began to write. "Itís the least I can do for my biggest fan."
She accepted the newly autographed book from him, eyes wide and shining. Too excited to speak, she bounced a few times in wordless joy, then darted forward long enough to plant a resounding kiss on his cheek before dashing off, calling for her mother to see the present the nice man had given her.
Finding himself abruptly ignored by the woman who focused completely, immediately and without apology, on the child jumping up and down in front of her, Jonathan sidled away, approaching with a searching look that Benny, watching out of the corner of his eye, pretended not to notice. The rest of his attention went to the battered diary in his hand, and at the carefully drawn, heavily traced-over lines describing a heart and two simple names on the cover.
Further puzzled by the strange smile that etched onto Bennyís face as he continued to stare at the little book, Jonathan cleared his throat softly. "Her mother, uh...said something about.... reincarnation?" When Benny glanced briefly at him, without giving him an answer other than a broadening of his odd grin, Jonathan ventured, "Thatís not true...is it? I mean, she doesnít really think she...does she?"
He gave up trying to cover the fear in his voice, and his words ended softly, a plea for reassurance. Benny glanced at him again, then stared at Mindy and her mother, laughing together as the woman read the inscription that her proud daughter presented for her inspection. Heíd chosen the dedication page, which had plenty of room to write around the simple words already printed there: "For Ginny, forever." Beneath, heíd added in a much more careful hand than usual, "To Mindy, my biggest fan. Thanks for stopping by to say hello. Edgar Benedek."
As he watched, the woman looked up and caught his eye. A vastly relieved smile spread over her face as she nodded her simple but eloquent thanks. And then, in a burst of movement and laughter and excited voices, they were gone.
"Benedek?" Jonathan tried again when the man kept staring at the door, jiggling the small book in his hand distractedly. "She wasnít...I mean, you donít really believe...."
He drew a deep breath, and, pulling on an almost comical grimace, considered a point just past Jonathanís shoulder as he shrugged philosophically. "Believe? Pal, Iím convinced. Out that door just walked the living reincarnation of Ralph Edwards...." As casually as he could manage, he dropped the book into his duffel bag and fastened the zipper with a flourish. "... and that was my life," he finished in a lower voice.
"What?" Jonathan pleaded, thoroughly baffled.
"I said, I believe that weíve got forty-five minutes to get to the airport."
That managed to successfully distract MacKensie, who rushed Benny through the profuse thanks and goodbyes lavished on him by the grateful store owners and employees. But the derailment lasted only until Jonathan finally relaxed back into his seat, assured for the sixth time by the now-irritated cab driver that they would make their flight with plenty of time to spare.
A few minutes of soft throat-clearing warned Benny that the respite was over. "I believe that was my copy you gave away."
"Yeah, sorry," he replied amiably. "Iíll get my agent to send you another one as soon as I get back."
"If you wouldnít mind...." He hesitated until the breath he was holding threatened to come out in an embarrassing rush. "If you wouldnít mind sending two? I...I...." Closing his eyes so that Bennyís surprised expression wouldnít further rattle him, he swallowed hard. "Iíd like to give a copy to Dr. Moorhouse."
"You mean...to read, or use as bird cage liner?"
"Benedek," he sighed, exasperated. "Just once...please?"
The plea was heartfelt, and for some reason, Benny instantly understood it. It wasnít just Jonathan begging him, donít give me a hard time. It was, sincerely and emphatically, take me seriously.
Which suddenly became a whole lot more difficult than he would have imagined. All he could do was blink in astonishment, and that only managed to make Jonathan even more uncomfortable.
MacKensie started to turn away, but then stopped as though he realized that he couldnít keep turning away, because it only wasted time and delayed the inevitable. His expression firmed, becoming resolute.
"You, um..." One final, authoritative cough. "You donít have to get back to New York right away, do you?"
He shook off his surprise long enough to pretend to think about it. "I think my bowling league can get by without me for another week. Why?"
"I was thinking that, well...before I left, Dr. Moorhouse gave me several cases to review. Several of them seemed very...interesting. At least, I thought they were interesting and I really think you would find them, ah...well, interesting." When Benny only looked at him, without comment or expression, he swallowed hard and summoned the rest of his courage. "Iíd like to go over them with you," he said quietly, in a rush to keep from stumbling or stammering. "If you wouldnít mind going over them with me, that is. I...we could decide which cases we'll want to tackle next, draw up a schedule, a game plan... as it were."
"Sure," Benny agreed, allowing himself only an inscrutable smile to Jonathanís vast relief. "Sure thing. My pleasure."
He settled back against the cracked vinyl, congratulating himself on the tremendous lie his calm exterior expressed. Not the least part of the emotions exploding inside him was sheer incredulity, a dogged unwillingness to believe what his own ears had just heard: Dr. Jonathan MacKensie, Ph.D., Georgetown Institute professor of anthropology, not only admitting that he found potential paranormal investigations interesting, but actually asking for input from Edgar Benedek, worldís proudest and most unrepentant supermarket tabloid hack. He could only wonder that he hadnít noticed, until now that is, that MacKensie hadnít put up his usual fight about being sent off to this symposium, hadnít grumbled once about Ďthis nonsenseí taking valuable time away from what he considered his real work of sorting through rotten old bones and teeth fragments. Sometime in the past few weeks and months, somewhere during the various investigations that they had stumbled through while bickering like in-laws, Jonathan MacKensie had managed to discover value in the work, and Edgar Benedek, to his chagrin, had missed the moment it had happened.
But then again, his mind had been elsewhere. He passed these past few weeks and months in a fog of doubt that gathered slowly and loomed heavily over him as heíd hammered away at the manuscript for that book. That nagging doubt as well as the raw fear that had struck him hard when he realized that he could no longer write the kind of sensationalist, half-cocked stories that had handed him his fame and fortune in the first place, were the only two things he could remember clearly about the recent past.
Heíd fought so hard against every aberration that appeared in his former winning style, and had lost nearly every time. Heíd ended every chapter with an open question, instead of indulging in his usual habit of trumpeting the first semi-plausible explanation that happened to include most of the facts as the solemn truth. Heíd given more attention and credit to thorough scientific investigative methods than he had to psychic hand-waving, and had even gone so far as to admit that the scientifically-based theories were actually far more credible than the usual paranormal explanations. And heíd handed his publisher the completed manuscript with the air of a man walking the last mile to the gallows, glumly assuming that the resulting effusive praise was merely proof that the man was so confident that Edgar Benedek would come through for him as usual that he hadnít even bothered to read the book before handing it over to production.
It wasnít until that moment that Benny realized that, even though the book had been out for three weeks and despite reviews which were just as mixed as theyíd ever been, had been sitting at the top of the best-seller list for two weeks and six days, the fear and doubts had lingered on.
Until now. And not because the book was an unqualified commercial success, or even because of Jonathanís completely unexpected tacit offer of respect.
It was because a little girl had told him that it was okay not to have all the answers.
Unconsciously, he lifted a finger to touch the tip of his nose. No more fear and doubts. No more lies. Not to a gullible public, not to himself. From now on, if he didnít know the answer, he would no longer panic and reach for the first semi-plausible explanation he could make up on the spot. If he didnít know the answer, then he would admit it freely, and heíd either accept that, or would just keep searching. But never again would he blame himself for not knowing.
To Ginny, all my love. Thanks for stopping by to say...goodbye.
© M.D.Bloemker. The contents of this page may not be copied or reproduced without the author's express written permission.
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